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Miss. River work welcomed, but is it enough?

Keywords: Tags  Mississippi River, water level, rock removal, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, John Peabody, U.S. Coast Guard, Colin Fogarty, barge traffic Sen. Dick Durbin

CHICAGO — Contractors hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have begun blasting away at exposed rock formations in the Mississippi River at Thebes, Ill., in order to permanently improve the navigable channel there for barge traffic.

Work at Thebes began Monday on the rock formations, while the Army Corps since Saturday has increased the flow of water into the river from Carlyle Lake in Illinois—both efforts to eliminate the danger that low water levels on the Mississippi have posed to shipping (, Dec. 13).

"Water from the lake will help provide the depth necessary for river commerce to pass Thebes, Ill., where rock formations pose a risk to navigation at minus 5 feet and below on the St. Louis gauge," Maj. Gen. John Peabody, commander of the Army Corps’ Mississippi Valley division, said.

The full extent of the releases from Carlyle Lake is expected to reach Thebes by Dec. 24, providing an additional 6 inches of depth in a "critical reach of the river." The releases will continue as needed until river levels get a boost from rain and snowfall.

The St. Louis gauge was at minus 3.3 feet Tuesday and was expected to rise to minus 2.7 feet Wednesday, according to the Army Corps’ daily river and reservoir report.

During the blasting project, the U.S. Coast Guard has placed a temporary closure on a small section of the river, allowing traffic to pass from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily in one direction at a time, Lt. Colin Fogarty told AMM Tuesday. Northbound tows moved Monday night, with southbound vessels scheduled to move Tuesday night.

"We have 16 vessels in the queue as of noon, both north and southbound. Many are fully loaded, 15 (barges) per tow," Fogarty said Tuesday, noting that the rock removal project could be completed by March.

The blasting work and water releases came as welcome news to shippers, port operators and the barge, tow and tugboat industry, as well as elected officials, including U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.), who pushed Corps leadership to take action.

However, the American Waterways Operators (AWO) and the Waterways Council urged that more water be released from the Missouri River reservoir system to avert a shutdown of the river to barge transportation, which could occur by the end of December.

Water levels will preclude navigation as towboats will be unable to transit the "bottleneck" between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., Waterways Council president Michael J. Toohey said Monday.

"Lawmakers who have been engaged during this crisis are to be commended ... but this situation continues to deteriorate," he said, citing the light-loading of barges by a third to half their capacity.

"For the next 30 to 60 days, there will be one-way traffic for only eight hours a day, in the very-best-case scenario," AWO president Tom Allegretti added.

In December and January alone, $7 billion worth of commodities—including steel, scrap, metallurgical coal and crude oil—transit the river, the Waterways Council estimates.

The low water is already "hurting" steel shipments, an upper Mississippi Valley distributor said.

"On the one hand, a couple mills are quoting delivered prices on the river and we will still get that, but on any subsequent orders we will have to pay extra for truck and rail shipments," the distributor said.

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