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Lower water level equals higher concern for area

Posted on Monday, January 7, 2013 at 8:53 am

Water levels on the Mississippi River have diminished after this summer’s drought. Shallow river depths have caused concern for residents near the water and business that utilize the river for transportation.

The water levels in the Mississippi river have spawned much discussion and concern in 2012. After this summer’s unsightly drought, water has become a limited resource. As the depths in the river decrease, they are causing some issues for area residents, and businesses that utilize the river for transportation.

According to a US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) press release, the USACE St. Louis District is responsible for maintaining a nine-foot-deep navigation channel on their designated 300 miles of the Mississippi River.

As of 10 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 19, the river was observed at a depth of 11.89 feet, so the current level at Louisiana is not low enough to cause severe problems. The flood stage is at 15 feet.

“You guys [Louisiana] are in the navigation pool, and so we should be able to maintain nine foot navigation past Louisiana with no problem,” said USACE representative Mike Petersen.

The National Weather Service website states that the USACE will try to keep the river above 11.5 feet for safe navigation of barge traffic. The ideal levels lie between 11.5 and 12.2 feet.

Reporting officials have noted an increase in algae on the Mississippi’s surface near Louisiana, which has caused an adverse effect to area residents. Drinking water has developed a fairly earthy smell to it. Increased precipitation in the area should dissipate the algae and rid the water of the smell.

Although it appears as though the river levels at Louisiana may lie at an ideal depth, that is not the case for residents in river towns to the south of Louisiana. St. Louis, at the open river, has experienced several problems with barge traffic. Petersen explained that the Corps have been doing quite a bit of research and work for the river at St. Louis, due to its level and high traffic.

As far south as Thebes, Ill., the Corps has begun blasting rock and releasing more water from a nearby lake to raise the river’s levels.

Many officials hope that winter precipitation and the release of water from dams at local lakes may aid in solving the problem. Residents are still advised to mind their local news in case of any issues regarding the river.

Tows have stacked up along the river for the past month and many are running reduced loads to make low clearances.

A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decision to send less water into the Mississippi River at St. Louis from reservoirs in the Dakota and continued drought could bring the river to below the safe barge depth of 9 feet at the Mound City by the end of the year.

“We have already been affected,” said Gerry Smith, president and owner of Wayne B. Smith Inc. in Louisiana, which is a firm that ships and receives barge loads of rock, sand, bauxite, coal, pot-ash and other commodities needed to run industries and power plants along the river.

“We’ve lost work with lighter barges and we get paid by the ton. One barge coming to us out of New Orleans was stopped at Memphis and unloaded because they we’re afraid it wouldn’t make it past there. Another barge we got the other day was lightened,” said Smith. “Our levels here have been relatively normal but St. Louis to Cairo (Ill.) is where the problem is. Once you’re below Cairo, the Ohio (River) flow takes over.

Smith said he “definitely” has concerns on the near horizon.

“Hopefully the spring will bring enough (rain) to end the drought and get the river back up.

Bunge North America runs a grain silo elevator which uses the river for shipping, but the firm chose not to comment, according to public information officer Deb Seidel.

Currently, dredges are scooping rocks out of the river at one particular low spot near Thebes, Ill., just south of Cape Girardeau. So far, that effort has been successful and cause for hope, but the drought lingers.

“This is not something we can solve in a few days, a few weeks, or even a few months if we have a persistent drought situation,” said Maj. Gen. John W. Peabody, commander of the Corps of Engineers Mississippi  Valley Division.

The major fear is that the river will eventually close to navigation.

“A cessation of navigation would have a ripple effect of economic loss that would be felt most heavily in the Midwest, but would endanger our national prosperity as well,” said Chief Executive Officer Craig Phillip of Ingram Barge Company in Nashville, Tenn.

The low levels of the river caused the American Waterways Conference to send a letter to President Barack Obama in late November asking for a declaration of emergency.  The president has voiced his concerns to address the situation but has not issued the sought declaration.

The waterways groups said in a press release that closing the Mississippi River to barge traffic would put billions of dollars worth of corn, grain, coal, chemicals and petroleum shipments at risk.

Dave Moller, Amy Patterson and Shane Rice contributed information for this article.