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Low-water threatens Mississippi barge traffic, heightens political tensions

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 20, 2012 - With low water threatening to impede barge traffic next month on the middle Mississippi River, lawmakers are turning up the pressure in an effort to delay planned reductions in water releases from drought-shrunken reservoirs on the upper Missouri River.

“This Missouri River fight is a fight that we need to end, and occasionally that means we’ll take more water than we’d like to take” when flood threatens, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., told reporters last week. “But it also should mean occasionally that they’re going to give us more water than they’d like to give.”

Right now, as low-water conditions threaten river navigation, the Mississippi River states are in the market for as much water as they can get – not only from the reservoirs along the Missouri river but also from other storage lakes on the upper Mississippi.

“We’ve got numerous businesses that depend on being able to ship their goods and services along the Mississippi to get them to market,” U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said in a statement Monday. “Jobs depend on this critical access, and I’ll keep working to protect those jobs.”

Blunt and McCaskill joined Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and 10 other senators from Mississippi River states in sending a letter Friday to the Defense Department official who oversees the Army Corps of Engineers, asking for action to prevent next week’s scheduled reduction 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.”

The senators also asked the Corps to move quickly to demolish rock pinnacles in the river channel near Thebes, Ill., as another step to ease Mississippi navigation. When the river level is low, such rock formations impede riverboat and barge movements.  

However, such work -- as well as the continual dredging of the Mississippi -- might not be enough to maintain navigation on parts of the river channels. And, unless something changes, less water will be coming from the Missouri River.

Earlier this month, the Corps announced that it planned to reduce the volume of water it releases from the Gavins Point dam on the South Dakota-Nebraska border to the minimum of 12,000 cubic feet a second in late November.

In a typical winter, about 17,000 cubic feet a second of water is released from Gavins Point, but drought in the upper Missouri basin has shrunk the reservoirs. And the Master Manual that governs how much water is kept in those reservoirs demands a certain level to maintain enough for hydropower, recreation, irrigation and uses other than navigation. 

Blunt, who during the 2011 flooding had helped assemble a working group of senators representing states along the Missouri River, said, “We’re working to try to figure out how far we can go working as a group for the interests of all the states that border the Missouri and, in this case, the Mississippi River.”

Mentioning that he had talked with U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., Blunt called the water-release issue “an interesting challenge of a new working relationship on the Missouri River – whether or not we’re all going to work together to try to make the river work for everybody.”

At a news conference Friday in St. Louis, Maj. Gen. John W. Peabody, commander of the Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division, cautioned that solving the navigation problems is not a short-term task. “This 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,” he said.

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.

However, because of drought conditions along the upper Missouri, Corps officials say there are no plans to postpone its scheduled reduction of water releases from the Missouri River reservoirs, starting next week. In fact, it would likely take a directive from Washington – such as a White House order, as being sought by barge industry officials – to alter that plan.

The river navigation industry has warned that the low water levels could affect shipments of grain, coal and crude oil next month. At the news conference, George Foster, the 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 -- have 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.

Congress is in recess this week, but lawmakers from the river states were expected to take up the issue again in late November and early December. In addition to Missouri's and Illinois' senators, the letter to the Corps on water releases also was signed by senators from Iowa, Minnesota, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

In the meantime, the commander of the Coast Guard’s 8th district, Rear Adm. Roy A. Nash, said that – depending on how much river navigation is constrained by low water – there may have to be temporary reductions in the number of barge tows and in the tonnage of cargo carried by those tows.

“We have worked together [with the Corps and industry] throughout high water last year, and will continue to work together” during low-water conditions, he said. 

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