ST. LOUIS – Efforts taken to keep a crucial stretch of the drought-starved Mississippi River open to barge traffic should be sufficient to avert a shipping shutdown that the industry fears is imminent, Army Corps of Engineers and Coast Guard officials said Friday.
The corps said crews in recent weeks have made “fantastic” progress clearing treacherous bedrock from a channel about 150 miles south of St. Louis near Thebes, Ill. – the portion of the river that has grown especially worrisome to barge operators moving an array of cargo to northern states and south to the Gulf of Mexico.
Shipping groups warned this week that the waterway there could drop to a point – 3 feet on the river gauge – in which barge weight restrictions would have to be further tightented, effectively halting shipping.
Drafts, or the portion of each barge that is submerged, already are limited to 9 feet in the middle Mississippi. If the river gauge gets to 3 feet at Thebes, the Coast Guard might be forced to limit drafts even further. Officials with the trade group say that if drafts are restricted to 8 feet or lower, many operators will stop shipping.
National Weather Service hydrologists, as of Friday, forecast that the river at Thebes could drop to the 3-feet mark by next Thursday and continue falling to 1 foot by the end of this month.
Experts say that if barges stop moving, billions of dollars of shipments of essentials such as corn, grain, coal and petroleum could be affected.
The trade groups renewed their call for presidential action requiring the Army Corps to increase the flow of water from an upper Missouri River dam in South Dakota. The corps cut the flow by two-thirds in November because of drought conditions in that region, reducing the amount of Missouri River water flowing into the Mississippi.
To compensate, the corps rushed in contractors last month to clear an estimated 890 cubic yards of limestone from the river bottom near Thebes – work that Petersen said has been “working fantastically” and should be completed by the end of January, perhaps sooner.
During that work, barge traffic at that stretch has been limited to an eight-hour window each day, causing bottlenecks of up to 20 vessels and 400 barges. The Coast Guard says more than 490 vessels still have made their way through, as of Thursday.