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Mississippi River navigation halt looms

Keywords: Tags  Mississippi River, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Waterways Council, Deborah Colbert, American Waterways Operators, Tom Allegretti, Thebes, barge shipments scrap

CHICAGO — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released water again late last week from Carlyle Lake, a reservoir along the Kaskaskia River near St. Louis, to support the continuation of navigation on the Mississippi River.

It was the second release in less than two weeks; the first occurred Dec. 15. The releases were in response to the drought that has kept river levels too low—resulting in less-than-optimal drafts in many cases—to efficiently operate tugboats and barges.

The low water level has already had an impact on some ferrous scrap markets as well as the ferroalloys market (, Dec. 7).

The latest projections indicate that the most recent water release, along with the current weather forecast, will cause the river gauge at Thebes in southern Illinois to drop to below 10 feet around Jan. 7, below 9 feet around Jan. 15 and below 8 feet around Jan. 23, according to Deborah Colbert, spokeswoman for the Waterways Council Inc. (WCI).

The Army Corps has suggested that its rock pinnacle removal efforts, begun Dec. 17 at Thebes, "may begin to have an impact on controlling depths around Jan. 20, but that is still to be determined," she said.

When the river gauge drops below a certain point, the Coast Guard reduces draft by 1 foot to avoid the grounding of vessels, but most towboats cannot operate at less than a 9-foot draft so the majority of navigation "will cease around mid-January without more water," Colbert said.

Continued uncertainty regarding what drafts will be available "continues to choke freight movements just as much as the low water itself," she said. "Without certainty that the water will be there when barges reach Thebes, shippers continue to light-load based on worst-case scenarios or continue to cancel trips altogether."

While Army Corps contractors are blasting the rock pinnacles, the channel at Thebes remains closed for 16 hours per day, with both north- and southbound vessels backing up.

WCI, the American Waterways Operators (AWO) and others continue to press elected national and state officials for assurances that water will be there when barge shipments arrive in order to prevent further economic loss.

"Manufacturers ... have been feeling the impacts of this emergency with canceled orders, lost exports to market and higher (costs)," AWO president and chief executive officer Tom Allegretti said, adding that unless a shutdown is averted "those impacts will increase significantly."

Commodity volume through the Chain of Rocks Lock and Dam 27 north of St. Louis—the busiest dam on the river—totaled 5.02 million tons in October, the latest figures available, down 7.5 percent from 5.43 million tons in the same month a year earlier.

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