By STEVE BINDER
St. LOUIS, Mo. — Absent any action by Congress, the usually mighty Mississippi River likely will start losing its transportation power beginning Friday, when federal officials clamp down on a key reservoir along the Missouri River.
Already at low levels because of the nation’s drought, the Mississippi south of St. Louis faces an additional slowdown of water flow when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers limits the outflow from the Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota and other upstream reservoirs beginning Nov. 23.
A bipartisan group of 15 U.S. senators and five governors – including Jay Nixon of Missouri and Pat Quinn of Illinois – as well as the largest barge trade group have called on Congress to prevent the slowdown, arguing that barge traffic along the Mississippi could be shut down completely between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., by early December.
The letter sent last Friday to Corps Assistant Secretary Jo-Ellen Darcy called on the agency to delay the slowdown of water flow, and to speed up the planned blasting of rock formations near Thebes and Grand Tower in Illinois, which could prevent barge traffic as early as Dec. 10 if water levels recede as expected.
“The Mississippi River is vital to commerce for agriculture and many other goods, including our ability to export our goods,” stated the letter, written by Sens. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, and Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat. “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.”
Water levels along the Mississippi south of St. Louis were at historic lows for this time of year; as of Nov. 14, the river was slightly below 9 feet at St. Louis.
Flood stage there is 16 feet higher. Farther south, near New Madrid, Mo., the water level was at 1.5 feet, nearly 33 feet below flood stage.
River levels along the Missouri River were similarly low, and it is partly for that reason the Corps plans to limit flow from Gavins Point. Based on a federally mandated management plan for the Missouri River Basin, the Corps annually slows the flow down the Missouri during the usually drier winter months, to ensure water is available in the basin come spring, particularly for hydropower.
Corps spokeswoman Monique Farmer said the agency must follow the Missouri River Master Manual, a plan approved by Congress and upheld in courts.
“We do not believe we have the authority to operate solely for the Mississippi River basin,” said Farmer, who is based in Omaha, Neb. “There are incidental benefits for the Mississippi River. The manual is for benefit of the Missouri River.”
If the Corps moves ahead with the Missouri slowdown plan, and without above-average rain in the coming weeks, it is likely barge traffic will be shut down for some period of time, St. Louis Corps officials predicted.
During a press conference Nov. 16 in St. Louis, the Corps’ Major Gen. John Peabody announced he ordered the release of water from a reservoir on the upper Mississippi that could add up to 6 inches of water level at St. Louis. Peabody is the commander of the Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division.
“Every inch counts, and we’re trying to squeeze out every inch of capacity that we have,” he said.
But Tom Allegretti, president and CEO of the American Waterway Operators, said the country’s principal trade route likely will be shut down if Congress does not take action soon.
“The Mississippi River is an economic superhighway that efficiently carries hundreds of millions of tons of essential goods for domestic use as well as national export,” Allegretti said. “We need to address this situation swiftly, cut through bureaucratic red tape and prevent the closure of the Mississippi.”
Allegretti’s trade group said barges on the Mississippi carry 20 percent of the country’s coal and more than 60 percent of its grain exports, as well as everything from petroleum products to lumber, industrial chemicals and fertilizer.
Andrew Carter, an executive with Knight Hawk Coal Co., based in Percy, Ill., said if the river closes the company will be forced to lay off up to 400 of its employees. Knight Hawk uses the river to ship about 80 percent of the coal it obtains from its southern Illinois mines.
“We live on the river,” he said.