Traffic along a key navigation channel on the Mississippi River could come to an effective halt by Jan. 3 or 4 due to drought conditions, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers advised earlier this week.
The advisory presents a more urgent situation than earlier forecasts, which said the area near Thebes, Ill., south of St. Louis, would be affected by the middle of January. The Corps is conducting rock pinnacle removal work on the site.
The water level had gotten so low that rock formations near Thebes were causing navigational hazards to barges. The Corps said earlier this month it was adding six inches of water
from Carlyle Lake, in Illinois, by Dec. 24. But the agency's revised forecast for lower water levels came that same day.
“The latest forecast calls for the Mississippi River gauge at Thebes to be at three feet and falling on or around Jan. 3-4, with vessel drafts limited to eight feet,” the Waterways Council said in a notice Thursday. “The forecast for the river gauge to reach to two feet and falling will be on or around Jan. 12-13, allowing only a 7-foot maximum vessel draft. It is estimated that the river will reach a reading of one foot and falling on or around Jan. 19, which equates to 6 feet of navigable depth. The majority of towboats require a nine-foot draft to operate and only a very small number of towing vessels can operate at eight- or seven-foot drafts.”
River shipping interests have urged the Obama administration to release a minimal amount of water from the Missouri River reservoirs to avert an effective shutdown of Mississippi barge transportation.
“The Corps’ rock pinnacle removal and dredging work and our collective prayers for rain have not produced enough water to sustain navigation on the Mississippi River and so the Administration must act to avert a closure,” said Michael J. Toohey, president and chief executive officer of the Waterways Council, in a statement. “We have been urging action all along and the time is now to release needed water or we will have run out of time on this national crisis.”
“The nation’s shippers, farmers, manufacturers and operators have been feeling the impacts of this emergency, with cancelled orders, lost exports to market, and higher prices to consumers, but unless water is provided now to avert a shutdown, those impacts will increase significantly,” added Tom Allegretti, president and CEO of American Waterways Operators. “Unless the administration takes action now, the nation risks 60 days or more without waterborne commerce on the mid-Mississippi River. We urge the White House to authorize the release of additional water immediately to maintain navigation on our country’s busiest and most important waterway.”
The two organizations said a river closure could have crippling effects on supply chains and the U.S. economy, potentially affecting $7 billion in commodities in December and January alone, including:
- More than 7 million tons of agricultural products, worth $2.3 billion.
- More than 1.7 million tons of chemical products, worth $1.8 billion.
- 1.3 million tons of petroleum products, worth over $1.3 billion.
- More than 700,000 tons of crude oil, worth $534 million.
- 3.8 million tons of coal, worth $192 million. - Eric Johnson