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Mississippi River ready for navigation

Keywords: Tags  Mississippi River, low water, dredging, Army Corps of Engineers, Mike Petersen, AEP River Operations, Marty Hettel, steel aluminum

CHICAGO — The middle Mississippi River is finally wide enough and deep enough for near-normal seasonal navigation, thanks to dredging projects and precipitation, according to a major barge operator and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Army Corps of Engineers removed 8 million cubic yards of sediment and rock since August, twice as much as would be dredged in a non-drought year, Mike Petersen, spokesman for the agency’s St. Louis District, said March 5.

"As far as draft (the depth allowed for moving vessels), there are no restrictions right now and barges and tows are loading normal amounts," he said. "Traffic is moving. We are through the tough spot."

Since the end of December, "when the low level became critical, the Corps gave us two more feet of water down at Thebes (Ill., where contractors blasted rock pinnacles), and we’ve had tremendous help from Mother Nature" in the form of snowstorms, Marty Hettel, senior manager of bulk sales at St. Louis-based AEP River Operations, said March 4.

The only thing left to do is rebuoy the channel, which is akin to moving buoys farther apart to create a four-lane path in a two-lane channel. That should be done by the end of this week, he said.

"We are in much better shape," he said, adding that vessel operators also look forward to the spring release of water from Gavins Point Dam, on the upper Missouri River north of Sioux City, S.D.

The release should add to the Mississippi’s channel depth at St. Louis by April 1, Petersen said. The Army Corps of Engineers twice released water from Carlyle Lake, a reservoir along the Kaskaskia River near St. Louis, this winter to ensure minimum drafts.

"I think we are through the critical times," Hettel said, "but who knows what happens next fall, when the Corps shuts the reservoir on the Missouri again. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it."

The Corps is well aware that droughts typically last more than a year and is prepared to respond if river levels get low later this year, Petersen said.

Meanwhile, Hettel said AEP is able to load 12-foot depths and expects to get back up to 25- and 30-barge tows per push by the end of the week.

Commodities shipped include steel and aluminum, scrap, ferroalloys and metallurgical coal.

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