By STEVE BINDER
ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Thanks in part to some heavy equipment, a little dynamite and Mother Nature’s cooperation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials and barge operators are hopeful the drought-shriveled Mississippi River will stay open through the end of the month.
Critical of the Corps’ plan of handling the low river levels a few weeks ago – particularly its decision to hold back water from the Missouri River basin – one barge company now credits the agency’s work for keeping a stretch of the vital trade route south of St. Louis open the past month.
“The Army Corps of Engineers has done a great job of pulling rabbits out of their hat,” said Rick Calhoun, president of Cargo Carriers, the shipping section of Cargill, Inc. Cargo Carriers operates 1,300 barges.
“We believed it was an oncoming crisis, and by hook and by crook, it hasn’t gotten as bad as we thought. That’s great news,” he said last week.
Weather has helped out, too, with the southern Illinois and southeastern Missouri regions receiving more than 3 inches of rain over a five-day period into the weekend.
Crews hired by the Corps – Newt Marine Service of Dubuque, Iowa, and Kokosing Construction Co. of Fredericktown, Ohio – began removing bedrock near Thebes, Ill., in mid-December, and with the water level lowest in that area, it helped the companies blast and collect the rock more quickly.
“If there’s any silver lining with the low water, that’s it,” said Mike Petersen, a Corps’ spokesman based in St. Louis.
The Corps last week also released water from two lakes that connect to the Mississippi: Iowa’s Red Rock Lake and southern Illinois’ Carlyle Lake. The releases added about 6 inches of depth to the river, Petersen said, which “made a huge difference. It truly is a battle of inches when the river is this low,” he said.
The rock removal so far has added about 3 feet of depth to the area, Petersen said. Given the low water level, Calhoun said the size of his company’s tows in recent weeks are about half of what they would be normally.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and other officials toured the area last week; Durbin said he believes the White House administration will do “anything necessary” to ensure barge traffic continues along the key route. More than $100 billion in goods are moved along the Mississippi River annually.
Barges now are limited to 9-foot drafts within the 180-mile stretch of the river south of St. Louis. Normally, the depth of barges under the water surface is 12 feet. Barge operators hope the Corps can keep the Mississippi open for at least the next month; by then, spring rains and snowmelt likely will be enough to keep the passageway open without fear of a shutdown.
For now, it’s still “a hold-your-breath moment. We’re not out of the woods yet,” said Lynn Muench of the American Waterways Operators trade group.