Lawmakers from drought-stricken states along the Mississippi River on Thursday asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and President Barack Obama to act quickly to remove navigation hazards from the river that threaten to slow or stop barge traffic.
Low water levels have made it difficult for the corps to maintain a 9-foot-deep and 300-foot-wide navigation channel for barges along the river, an economic lifeline that carries billions of dollars of agricultural products, coal, chemicals and petroleum.
The low water also gives the corps an opportunity to remove a cluster of troublesome rock formations in several miles of the river just south of Cape Girardeau, Mo. Removing them will require shutting down the shipping channel for 12 hours at a time, creating a temporary headache for shippers.
“Long term this would be in the best interest of navigation,” said Bob Anderson, a spokesman for the corps in Vicksburg, Miss. “Short term it might be a little bit difficult.”
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The Mississippi’s low-water problems begin on the Missouri River in the upper Midwest, where the corps has reduced flows from reservoirs to protect critical water supplies for farms, industries and towns. A group of senators from affected states met Thursday with Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the army for civil works, and requested that the Corps of Engineers study the impact of releasing more water from the Missouri.
"If we don’t get any rain or much snow, will we have enough water for cooling towers, drinking water and all that kind of stuff next summer on the Missouri?" asked Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, one of several senators who met with Darcy.
Some of the same lawmakers sent a letter to Obama on Wednesday requesting an emergency declaration to direct the corps to begin removing the rock pinnacles in the Mississippi.
The Corps of Engineers has been planning for years to deal with the rocks, which are mostly submerged. They are part of an obstacle course for barge traffic along a stretch of the Mississippi that serves as the border between Missouri and Illinois, and that includes a sharp bend in the river and a railroad bridge.
“It’s actually a gorge. There’s rock on both sides of the channel,” said Dave Gordon, an engineer with the corps’ St. Louis district who helped plan its removal. “It’s the rock that’s underneath that’s the issue. We’re removing what’s underneath the navigation channel.”
The work could take up to two months, constraining the shipment of $7 billion of goods, including many exports. Grain producers, chemical companies, oil refineries and electric utilities all depend on the river. Some cargo could be diverted to rail and truck, but at greater cost to shippers and eventually consumers.