December 6, 2012
By Jim Salter and Jim Suhr (Associated Press) and Mark Fitton of the Southern
ST. LOUIS — A revised Mississippi River forecast offered a bit of a reprieve for shippers Wednesday, showing the water level isn’t dropping as quickly as feared. Still, at least two large barge companies already are reducing their loads over concerns about the river’s depth.
Meanwhile, Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon called for federal intervention.
Also on Wednesday, the Illinois House approved legislation co-sponsored by Rep. Jerry Costello II, D-Sparta, to urge President Barack Obama to take emergency action to ensure water levels do not fall below a level needed by commercial navigation on the Mississippi River and to direct the Army Corps of Engineers accordingly.
Months of drought have left the Mississippi near historic low levels, a problem worsened last month when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reduced the outflow from an upper Missouri River dam, lessening the amount of water that drains into the Mississippi where the rivers converge near St. Louis.
The river at St. Louis on Wednesday was about 13 feet deep. The Coast Guard has said further restrictions on barge traffic — most notably in a 180-mile stretch between St. Louis and Cairo — are likely if the river dips around 9 feet, though the decision is based on observation of conditions and not the level on the gauge.
Earlier National Weather Service forecasts had projected getting to the 9-foot level by Sunday or Monday. But a Weather Service hydrologist told The Associated Press on Wednesday that revised modeling now calls for reaching that level around Dec. 29, then dropping another foot by Jan. 2.
A message seeking comment about the revised forecast was left for Coast Guard officials.
Hydrologist Mark Fuchs said the earlier modeling didn’t account for water draining back into the Missouri River from its flood plain — draining that is occurring because the river is so low.
“It’s prolonging everything,” Fuchs said, though he warned the Mississippi “is going to get down there eventually if it doesn’t rain.”
Barge operators know that as well. Two operators say they’ve already decided to reduce the size of their barge loads.
Simon on Wednesday released a statement saying she would call for federal intervention at a quarterly meeting of the Mississippi River Coordinating Council on Friday.
“The Mississippi River is a vital economic resource, allowing goods to be transported around the country. Already barges are being forced to carry lighter loads, and unless we work together on a solution, barge traffic will halt completely,” Simon said.
Simon, as well as Gov. Pat Quinn, Navistar, Caterpillar, ADM, Great Lakes Dredge and Docks, and others have appealed to the federal government for assistance that will keep the river open. According to the American Waterways Operators, a potential closure preventing barges from transporting goods would jeopardize $7 billion in products during December and January alone.
Simon chairs the Mississippi River Coordinating Council, composed of a diverse group of citizens, not-for-profit organizations, and state and federal agencies. The Council coordinates initiatives, projects and funding to promote the ecological health of the Mississippi River and its tributaries by addressing the issues in the watershed.
— Contributing to this report were Jim Salter and Jim Suhr of The Associated Press and Mark Fitton of The Southern.