Water levels in the Mississippi have dropped so low all shipping could shut down in a matter of weeks. Last Summer’s historic drought has choked the vital shipping channel, beaching barges and exposing sandbars and rocks making passage of our nation’s busiest shipping channel treacherous.
From The St. Louis Post- Dispatch: More than two dozen Illinois politicians, U.S. Army Corps officials and industry representatives met here Monday morning to discuss strategies for keeping the Mississippi River open to barge traffic as water levels approach record lows.
“We are facing a historic challenge on the Mississippi River,” [Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.] said during a news conference. “This is critically important to the economy of the Midwest and of the nation. Literally, billions of dollars worth of goods travel that Mississippi River — important to jobs in the Midwest and to growth in our national economy.”
Over the weekend, the Army Corps of Engineers, Coast Guard, and contractors began a month-long effort to remove rock pinnacles that are making passage treacherous along parts of the drought-plagued waterway.
From WLS-TV: “We really have a sense of urgency to get this done,” Belk said in an interview afterward. “While we’re pleased with the contractors’ work, we’re not satisfied with any of this until we get it all removed.” So far, crews are using excavating machinery to remove pinnacles, described as six times harder than concrete. Belk said he anticipates that explosives will eventually be used. The emergency rock removal work is expected to continue until mid-January, Belk said.
The work stretches from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. while the stretch of river is closed to shipping. Barges seeking passage line up for the eight-hour window when the stretch is reopened, with the U.S. Coast Guard essentially directing traffic, letting barges through in one direction, then the other.
In an unusual move, the Army Corps of Engineers also began releasing water into the Mississippi River from Carlyle lake, hoping to add a few more inches of depth to the rapidly lowering water-levels.
From the Chicago Tribune: On Saturday, the corps began releasing water from Carlyle Lake into the Mississippi, saying the additional water will provide 6 inches of depth by Christmas Eve, enabling barge traffic to safely pass the rock formations. Gen. John Peabody, the corps’ Mississippi Valley Division commander, said the “inches make a difference.”
River industry trade groups worry the efforts won’t be enough.
From the Chicago Tribune: Barges on the Mississippi already are carrying lighter and more frequent loads, and some operators say they’ll halt shipping if they face more restrictions. Trade groups say a prolonged stoppage of shipping on the Mississippi could have an economic impact reaching into billions of dollars, with the movement of agricultural products, coal, petroleum and other goods reliant on the river for transit.
by Mai Armstrong for Working Harbor Committee