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Mississippi River's levels threaten shipping

Keywords: Tags  Mississippi River, low water levels, Missouri River, American Waterways Operators, Tom Allegretti, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mike Petersen, AEP River Operations Marty Hettel

CHICAGO — Certain sections of the Mississippi River could close to commercial traffic by mid-December due to low water conditions unless action is taken to increase flows or remove obstacles, shipping sources told AMM.

Water releases from dams on the upper Missouri River are scaled back each November; this year, that would reduce already-low water levels on the Mississippi even further, particularly between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., according to Arlington, Va.-based trade groups American Waterways Operators (AWO) and Waterways Council Inc. (WCI).

The groups have asked officials to allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to quickly contract a project to blast rock formations that, at low water levels, block navigation.

“Of particular concern are hazardous rock formations ... (that) threaten navigation when water levels drop to anticipated, near-historic lows,” the AWO and WCI said in a joint statement . “The rock formations, combined with the reduced flows from the Missouri River, will prohibit the transport of essential goods along this critical point in the river, effectively stopping barge transportation on the middle Mississippi River around December 10.”

“We need to address this situation swiftly, cut through bureaucratic red tape and prevent the closure of the Mississippi,” AWO president Tom Allegretti said in the statement.

A spokesman for the St. Louis district of the Army Corps said the agency reduces flow from dams every year, which typically causes a drop in river levels of between 2 and 4 feet.

“We have been dredging nonstop since the first of July,” mainly from Hannibal, Mo., to Cairo, the spokesman said Friday.

The Army Corps also uses structures to direct water to the middle of channels to naturally scour the bottom for deeper drafts. The dredging cutter cannot remove rock, so the Corps would have to contract that service out.

Meanwhile, the Army Corps is “talking (with shippers) about priorities and keeping commerce moving.”

Marty Hettel, senior manager of bulk sales for St. Louis-based AEP River Operations, said his barges are facing the same difficulties now as they do in the summer (, Aug. 3).

“We are still at a nine-foot draft (with vessels) still loading lighter (and shipments) still costing more,” he said Monday.

Gavins Point Dam on the upper Missouri River currently releases 38,000 cubic feet of water per second. The Army Corps will start cutting back Nov. 23, reducing the rate to just 12,000 cubic feet by Dec. 1, Hettel said. Within days, water in the Mississippi at St. Louis will drop from minus 4.6 feet to minus 7.6 feet, and rocks between miles 39 and 46 will be too close to the surface.

Without sufficient rain in the next two weeks, “it will in essence shut down navigation,” Hettel said. “I have no idea what the consequences will be. There is not enough rail or truck (capacity) to support that kind of tonnage. It’s a serious scenario.”

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