Mississippi River Within a Week of Shutting Down Barge Traffic Between St Louis and CairoMon, 03 Dec 2012 04:59:00 CST
Water levels on the Mississippi River are falling - and if they get too low - the nationís main inland waterway could become impassable to barges. The river could reach the point where itís too shallow for the barges that carry food, fuel and other commodities. Experts say the economic losses could climb into the billions if the Mississippi is closed for a lengthy period. Not only would the shipping and grain industries feel the pain of such a closure - but consumers could see higher grocery and utility bills. Don Sweeney with the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis says higher prices would be inevitable.
The biggest area of concern is a 180-mile stretch between the confluences of the Missouri River near St. Louis and the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois. A lack of rain has squeezed the channel from its normal one-thousand foot or more width to just a few hundred feet. The depth of the river is 15 to 20 feet less than normal - about 13 feet deep in many places. At a depth of nine feet - rock pinnacles at two locations make it difficult - if not impossible - for barges to pass. National Weather Service hydrologists predict the river will reach that nine-foot mark by December 9th.
The situation has been made worse by an Army Corps of Engineers decision to reduce the outflow from an upper Missouri River dam in South Dakota. There the drought has intensified - so to ease the effects of the drought in the northern Missouri River basin - the flow is gradually being cut by more than two-thirds by December 11th.
In response to this Army Corps of Engineers decision that will gradually reduce the outflow from an upper Missouri River dam in South Dakota by more than two-thirds by December 11th - a large group of organizations and lawmakers asked the President last week to ask President Obama to direct the Corps to release as much water as necessary from the Missouri River reservoirs to preserve a nine-foot channel on the Mississippi River. White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that the Obama Administration shares the specific concerns from lawmakers and others about the decreasing water level of the Mississippi and is exploring all possible options.
For their part - the Corps vowed to speed efforts - as quickly as the law will allow - to keep the river open. But on Friday - U.S. Senators representing states along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers elevated the request for the Army Corps of Engineers to manage water levels on the Missouri River to avoid a catastrophic economic problem on the Mississippi River. In a letter - the senators urged the President to issue an emergency directive to permit additional water flows from the Missouri River reservoirs to maintain navigation on the Mississippi. Without emergency action - the senators say commercial navigation on the middle Mississippi River between St. Louis, Missouri and Cairo, Illinois will be severely impaired as early as mid-December.
Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley says there needs to be a coordinated effort to ensure navigation doesnít come to a halt on the Mississippi. He says such a major interruption in commercial activity would ultimately impact jobs throughout the region - and steps can be taken to prevent it.
Grassley signed the letter to the President along with Tom Harkin of Iowa, Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Mark Pryor and John Boozman of Arkansas, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Mary Landrieu and David Vitter of Louisiana, Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker of Mississippi, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sherrod Brown of Ohio.
Here is the text of the letter.
November 28, 2012
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear President Obama:
We understand that the governors of impacted states, representatives of industry, and others have written seeking action by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to prevent an economic calamity in the center of our nation. We write in strong support of their request. Absent emergency action to ensure that water levels do not fall below the level needed to support the navigation channel, commercial navigation on the middle Mississippi River between St. Louis, MO, and Cairo, IL, will be severely impaired as early as mid-December. Substantial curtailment of navigation will effectively sever the countryís inland waterway superhighway, imperil the shipment of critical cargo for domestic consumption and for export, threaten manufacturing industries and power generation, and risk thousands of related jobs in the Midwest.
Given the magnitude of the economic impact that would result from a potentially months-long loss of navigation on the Mississippi, we support an emergency directive to permit additional water flows from Missouri River reservoirs to maintain navigation on the Mississippi, and to waive Federal Acquisition Rules (FAR) to allow the Corps of Engineers to expedite blasting of the rock pinnacles near Grand Tower and Thebes, Illinois. These pinnacles pose a hazard to barge navigation during periods of low water levels and their removal will allow commercial navigation on the Mississippi to continue. Once the rocks are removed, additional water flows from the Missouri River would be unnecessary or significantly reduced. Waiving FAR guidelines could allow the Corps to sole source for the work, eliminating the 30-day requirement for bids and allowing the work to proceed in an expedited manner.
The Mississippi River is an artery of commerce critical to the movement of hundreds of millions of tons of essential goods and commodities such as corn, grain, coal, petroleum, chemicals, and many other products important to the national economy. All told, cargo valued at over $7 billion, including 300 million bushels of agricultural products and 3.8 million tons of coal, could experience shipping delays that cause ripple effects and damage local economies up and down the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. In addition, if shipping on the river is impeded, about five million barrels of domestically produced crude oil will not be shipped and purchases of imported crude oil will increase by about $550 million as a result.
Given the potentially large negative impact of this looming disaster, we hope that you will give due consideration to our request.
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