By STEVE BINDER
St. LOUIS, Mo. — Federal officials signaled Friday they may reverse course and increase water flow into the drought-dried Mississippi River, as well as speed up plans to blow up rock formations, all in the name of keeping barge traffic flowing.
Representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers met with a contingent of U.S. senators, including Democrats Richard Durbin of Illinois and Tom Harkin of Iowa, and said they are conducting new research into how it may release more water from the Missouri River to the Mississippi.
The Corps also is looking at how it can speed up the planned explosions of bedrock near the Illinois towns of Thebes and Grand Tower, rock pinnacles that threaten to shut down barge traffic completely.
A contingent of Midwest governors and barge industry groups have petitioned the White House to declare the barge traffic threat a federal emergency, and the White House has taken notice.
During a press conference Friday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said, “We also share the specific concerns from lawmakers and others about the decreasing water level of the Mississippi. While there is a complex set of legal, technical and policy questions around these issues, we are exploring all possible options.”
After Friday’s meeting with the senators, Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Corps’ assistant secretary for civil works, said she would respond to the lawmakers regarding the flow of water from the Missouri within a week, Durbin said.
“They told us they would expedite it as quickly as the law will allow,” he added.
The Corps on Nov. 23 began slowing the flow of water over the Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota as part of its legal responsibility under a federal management plan for the Missouri River Basin. Water for hydropower and drinking are two critical components, and with the worst drought in more than 50 years, the Corps said slowing the flow down the Missouri was even more critical this year.
But keeping the flow of goods moving down the Mississippi also is critical, Durbin said. The American Waterways Operators (AWO) says some $7 billion worth of coal, grain and other products are moved up and down the Mississippi River in December and January.
The national trade group, which represents the tugboat, towboat and barge industry, wants water flow increased and bedrock blasting to begin immediately. ‘‘Until we start seeing some specifics, we’re going to be pushing for the things we’ve been pushing for all along. We feel the work needs to start immediately,” said Ann McCulloch, AWO spokeswoman.
How quickly the Corps could award a contract and get blasters in place in the stretch of the Mississippi between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., is unknown, said Romanda Walker, a Corps spokeswoman based in St. Louis. The work likely couldn’t begin before Dec. 11, she said – the date when hydrologists with the National Weather Service are predicting the river may be low enough for the exposed pinnacles to shut down barge traffic.
“It is such a delicate process to remove the rocks,” Walker said.
The river as of Friday in the area was at a depth of 13 feet; it is projected to get to about 9 feet by Dec. 11 without any significant rainfall.
A geology professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale said the area near Thebes and Grand Tower is the only spot between St. Louis and New Orleans where the Mississippi flows over bedrock.
“Dynamite is an act of desperation. When all else fails, that’s how you get over the low bumps,” said professor Nicholas Pinter.