With water levels on the Mississippi River nearing historic lows, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers launched a two-pronged approach this week aimed at minimizing shipping delays on the nation’s busiest inland waterway. The plan, which includes increasing water flow into the river and removing rock pinnacle impediments to deepen the navigable channel, will cause temporary delays but may keep the river open for shipping for much of the winter under some plausible weather scenarios.
“While the drought is at the core of the current issues on the Mississippi, this situation also highlights the dire need for infrastructure improvements,” said National Corn Growers Association Chairman Garry Niemeyer, a grower from Auburn, Ill. “At NCGA, we have been pushing for upgrades the locks and dams since 1993,but our federal government has failed to respond. If we continue to ignore our infrastructure, we will lose valuable markets.”
Today, contractors from Iowa and Ohio will begin drilling holes into massive rock formations in Mississippi River bedrock south of St. Louis near Thebes, Ill. and detonating explosives inserted inside. The corps expects to remove enough rock to fill approximately 50 dump trucks.
The demolition necessitates closure of a six-mile stretch of the river starting Tuesday from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Barges seeking passage will have to wait for an eight-hour window when that stretch will be open. During that time the Coast Guard will act as a flagman, allowing barges to pass. Shipping will be allowed along the stretch in only one direction at a time.
The project, which was initially to have begun in February, was expedited at the request of U.S. lawmakers from Mississippi River states. While the rock being removed would normally lie beneath sand on the river’s bottom, corps’ dredging efforts to keep the channel open for shipping exposed the formations. Low water levels brought on by the drought have amplified the magnitude of shipping impairment thus intensifying need for more immediate removal.
In addition to rock removal efforts, the corps began releasing water from Carlyle Lake into the Mississippi on Saturday, December 15. According to the corps, the additional water will provide six additional inches of depth by Christmas Eve.
Months of drought have left water levels up to 20 feet below normal along a 180-mile stretch of the river from St. Louis to Cairo, Ill., fanning concerns among barge operators that river use may be dramatically restricted, if it is not completely shut down.
Water from the lake will help provide the depth necessary for river commerce to pass Thebes, Ill., where rock formations pose a risk to navigation. The releases gradually increased over a two-day period, allowing 4,000 cubic feet of water per second into the waterway by yesterday afternoon. Releases will continue if needed until the river level increases through precipitation, or until Carlyle Lake reaches its winter pool elevation. With the additional release schedule, Carlyle Lake is expected to reach its winter pool level in approximately three weeks.
Carlyle Lake is located on the Kaskaskia River system and is one of few reservoirs able to significantly capture water above its seasonal pool level to support navigation during the current drought.
Efforts to keep the Mississippi river open commenced as concerns from a variety of sectors over water levels and infrastructure continue to grow. Currently, barge tows can barely squeeze through navigable parts of the channel. As shippers are forced to further reduce the size of tows and lighten loads, thus wasting much needed capacity.
By early January, the water level could drop to a historic low of -6.4 gage at St. Louis. Without tributary inflows, this equates to approximately a seven feet deep channel at Thebes, restricting barges to six feet of operating depth or a 33 percent loss in carrying capacity.
The Waterways Council, Inc., of which NCGA is a member, commissioned a study to determine the effects should of a December Mississippi River closure. The findings showed that approximately $2.3 billion in agricultural products will be delayed in reaching their markets, and job losses in Illinois and Missouri could near 7,500.
The importance of the Mississippi River to agriculture is difficult to understate, with $52 billion in grain and other farmed goods produced in its watershed annually. Allowing the movement of 125 million tons of commodities in 2008, the most recent year for which data is available, failure to repair and improve river infrastructure would likely jeopardize the movement of those commodities to market.
Southbound barges on the Mississippi River carry grain destined for world markets. Those barges regularly pass northbound tows with thousands of tons of fertilizer heading to Midwestern ports and, later, to farmers’ fields. With shipping on the Mississippi already impeded and the problem likely to worsen, fertilizer shipments for the 2013 spring planting season could face delays.