Drought's winter toll: Mississippi barges face losses while US blasts river

Traffic along 180 miles of the drought-stricken Mississippi will be curtailed for a month, at a cost of billions to the barging industry, to allow the US to blast rock formations and raise river levels.

Seth Perlman/AP
Barges with excavating machinery remove rocks on the Mississippi River Tuesday, in Thebes Ill.

Even in winter, the severe drought that plagued a great swath of the nation’s agricultural and ranching states this summer is taking a punishing toll on the nation’s economy, with the Mississippi River barging industry the latest sector to fall victim.

With water levels in the river already dangerously low and continuing to fall, the US Army Corps of Engineers and the US Coast Guard embarked Tuesday on a month-long program to increase water flow and ease navigation, during which barge traffic will be severely curtailed on a 180-mile stretch of river. Barging industry officials say they expect about $7 billion in losses through the end of January as a result.

The Obama administration announced the project on Monday, saying the Corps and the Guard planned to blast massive rock formations in shipping channels along a 15-mile stretch near Thebes, Ill., about 128 miles south of St. Louis. The agencies also say they will release new water from reservoirs connected to the Carlyle River in southern Illinois.

In total, the $10 million project is expected to add about six inches of water depth to the Mississippi by next week, the Corps says.

“Every inch counts right now. It’s not a permanent fix. But we’re using every tool at our disposal to keep commerce moving,” says Mike Peterson, a Corps spokesman.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois, at a press conference in nearby Alton, Ill., said Monday that his office is tracking efforts with the Corps “to ensure we are doing everything we can to keep traffic moving on the river.”

“From farms to coal mines, a great deal of Illinois’ economy depends on the Mississippi,” he said.

While the river will not be completely shut down to barge traffic during the month-long project, it will not allow passage during daytime hours, between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. Vessels will be allowed to pass on a first-come, first-served basis arranged by the Coast Guard.

The barging industry says the efforts are not enough to increase both the water flow and depth that are needed to return the Mississippi to pre-drought levels. They have repeatedly urged the Corps to open up a reservoir system connected to the Missouri River to release at least 2 percent of its water, which is needed to compensate for river flows that are becoming “shallower and narrower” by the day, says Ann McCulloch, a spokeswoman with the American Waterways Operators, an advocacy organization in Washington.

“We are very grateful the Corps is expediting rock removal work. That is very important, but if it happens without a modest amount of flow from the Missouri River, we feel that work is not going to be enough to maintain navigation,” Ms. McCulloch says. Since August, she adds, barges that under normal conditions are meant to navigate with a 12-foot “draft” have been operating with a 9-foot draft, which is likely to decrease without the added flow.

The draft is a measurement used to determine the minimum depth of water needed for vessels to operate safely with and without cargo.

“When that channel becomes lower and lower, the Corps will place restrictions on how much barges can carry, and when you get below nine feet, the river might as well be closed, because there’s not much that will be able to move,” she says.

Mr. Peterson says the decision to keep the Missouri River reservoir system closed to the Mississippi is one of the “tough decisions” the agency makes in determining the best use of its water sources. He adds that the decision is based on the long-term forecast that the drought may not be an isolated event and could stretch forward for years.

"Right now this is year one in what we are looking at as a multi-year event,” he says. “We want to make sure every decision we make now won’t have long-term negative impact for people who rely on the Missouri River system for their drinking water and hydro power.”

The American Waterways Operators estimates that the partial shutdown of the river will reduce the number of barges from 35 to 15 that can be hauled by a single towboat. The reduced speed and capacity along the 180-mile stretch of the river between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., which has water levels already 20 feet below normal, will result in $7 billion in lost business in December and January, the organization says.

It says over a third of those losses, or $2.3 billion, is represented by farm exports. Other expected losses are from chemical products ($1.8 billion), petroleum products ($1.3 billion), crude oil ($534 million), and coal ($192 million).

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