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Senators seek 'emergency' declaration on Mississippi River navigation

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 27, 2012 - WASHINGTON – In an effort to ease the severe low-water navigation problems on the Mississippi River, lawmakers plan to ask the White House to issue an emergency declaration that would allow higher water releases from upstream reservoirs on the Missouri River.

Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said separately on Tuesday that such a directive would allow the Army Corps of Engineers more flexibility in increasing water releases from the reservoirs, which further restricted flows this month.

Staffers said McCaskill and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Ia. -- joined by other river-state senators -- will send a letter to President Barack Obama asking his administration to give the Corps more leeway in regulating Missouri River reservoir outflows, as well as in expediting contracts to blast rock pinnacles near Grand Tower and Thebes, Ill., that impede barge traffic during low-water conditions.

Update  On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said he planned to meet Thursday with the Defense Department official who supervises the Corps to ask the agency to quickly demolish those rock barriers and maintain barge traffic on the Mississippi. McCaskill also asked Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon on Wednesday to request a river-related disaster designation from the White House. End Update

“This issue is impacting jobs and businesses in Missouri as we speak, so we don’t have weeks to wait for a response from the Army Corps,” McCaskill said in a statement Tuesday. “It’s time for the president to take action to protect our jobs and businesses.”

Harkin told the New York Times that he would call on Obama to issue such an emergency declaration, because the disruption of barge traffic on the Mississippi “has the potential to impact the entire economy along the river — everything from increasing the cost to move goods to potential job losses.”

Blunt appeared to be leaning in the same direction, telling reporters Tuesday that he was “looking now at whether or not we should be asking for an economic emergency declaration by the president for the southern basin and also the Mississippi River valley” that would allow the Corps to act.

“You’re just not going to have the kind of transportation that you need on the river unless you get the right amount of water coming down the Missouri,” Blunt said.

Missouri water releases key

Relatively high water releases from the Missouri River are considered the key to maintaining Mississippi navigation while the river has shrunken to near-record low levels as a result of the Midwest drought.

With upper Missouri reservoirs about 20 percent below the water levels that are normally maintained this time of year, the Corps this month began reducing the volume of water it releases from the Gavins Point dam – going from 37,500 cubic feet per second to the current 26,500 cfs, down to 12,000 cfs by Dec. 11.

Earlier this month, Blunt and McCaskill joined Harkin, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and nine other senators from Mississippi River states in sending a letter to the Defense Department official who oversees the Army Corps of Engineers, asking for action to prevent the reductions in water releases from the Missouri River reservoirs.

Warning of a potential low-water “crisis” in river navigation, the senators wrote: “The Mississippi River is vital to commerce for agriculture and many other goods, including our ability to export our goods. If the river channel is not maintained, there will be a loss of jobs, income to many businesses and farmers, and an adverse impact to the economy of the region as a whole.” Sixty-two members of the U.S. House have signed a similar letter to the Corps.

The Corps of Engineers provides an interactive real-time stream gage map for the Missouri River Basin.

But a spokeswoman for the Corps’ northwest district said this week that the agency “does not have the legal authority” to manage the Missouri River reservoirs for the purpose of easing low-water conditions on the Mississippi. Because of drought conditions along the upper Missouri, Corps officials say it would likely take a White House directive to postpone its scheduled reduction of water releases from the reservoirs.

The river navigation industry has warned that lower water levels would affect shipments of grain, coal and crude oil – with one estimate that it could stall the transport of $7 billion worth of goods in December and January. At a recent news conference, George Foster, president of JB Marine Service Inc. of St. Louis, said that closing parts of the Mississippi would hurt many workers and firms whose livelihood depends on navigation.

The American Waterway Operators and the Waterways Council – which represent the river navigation industry -- warned that river-related commerce could imperil U.S. exports in December. “A cessation of navigation would have a ripple effect of economic loss that would be felt most heavily in the Midwest,” said Craig Philip, chief executive officer at Ingram Barge Co., based in Nashville, Tenn.

At a news conference St. Louis earlier this month, Maj. Gen. John W. Peabody, commander of the Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division, cautioned that solving the navigation problems “is not something we can solve in a few days, a few weeks, or even a few months if we have a persistent drought situation.”

Peabody said the Corps planned to hire a contractor to blast the rock pinnacles near Thebes and Grand Tower, Ill., and planned the release of water at reservoirs along the upper Mississippi, which eventually will reach the shrunken middle Mississippi.

Friction in Missouri River group

During the 2011 flooding, Blunt had helped assemble a working group of senators representing states along the Missouri River. He said Tuesday that he sees signs of “friction between the northern [Missouri River] basin, who want to keep the water for recreational and economic purposes, and the southern basin that needs some of that water for economic reasons.”

Blunt added: “If the Corps is not responsive, the next step would be to evaluate whether we should be asking the president for a declaration of economic emergency that would allow the Corps to go outside any restrictions that they think they have.”

However, Blunt contended that the Corps “could do this under their current guidelines. I think they have done it before … and Sen. Harkin and I and others are encouraging them to solve this Mississippi and Missouri River problem by giving us some water.”

Blunt said he has been talking with senators representing states along the upper Missouri River about keeping alive the 2011 working group.

“There are times when we need water … even though they’d rather not get rid of it. And there are times when they want to get rid of water that we’d rather not have,” he said. “It becomes the only reasonable option, and the Corps needs to manage that balance.”

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