On Air
0:00
0:00
Open In Popup
MPR News

Mississippi River level still expected to drop

Share story

Mississippi River
This Dec. 5, 2012 photo provided by The United States Coast Guard shows barges passing in tight quarters due to low water levels as they navigate the Mississippi River near St. Louis. In a letter obtained by The Associated Press Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, Army Assistant Secretary Jo-Ellen Darcy, a top Army Corps official, turned back requests by federal lawmakers and the barge industry to release more of the Missouri River it is withholding, believing the drought-starved Mississippi River the Missouri feeds still will remain open to shipping despite mounting concerns. ()
AP Photo/United States Coast Guard, Colby Buchanan

By JIM SUHR
Associated Press

ST. LOUIS (AP) —  Water levels on the drought-plagued Mississippi River are expected to keep dropping over the next several weeks, according to a new forecast Wednesday that comes amid worries that barge traffic soon could be squeezed along a key stretch of the vital shipping corridor.

  The latest outlook by National Weather Service hydrologists shows the river at St. Louis falling to about 9 feet deep by Dec. 30 —  a day later than earlier predicted —  and by a half foot more by Jan. 9, barring significant rainfall. The Coast Guard has said further restrictions on barge traffic are likely if the river's depth dips to 9 feet.

  The river depth in St. Louis as of Wednesday was about 12 feet.

  Months of drought have left water levels up to 20 feet below normal along a 180-mile stretch of the river from St. Louis to Cairo, Ill. The problem was worsened last month when the Army Corps of Engineers cut the outflow from an upper Missouri River dam by two-thirds, meaning far less Missouri River water flows into the Mississippi. 

  Barges on the Mississippi already are carrying lighter and more frequent loads, and some operators say they'll halt shipping if they face more restrictions from reduced water levels.

  Barge industry trade groups say a prolonged stoppage of shipping on the Mississippi could have an economic impact reaching into the billions of dollars, with the movement of agricultural products, coal, petroleum and other goods reliant on river for transit. 

Mississippi River barges
An empty barge, top, pulls along side a barge filled with soybeans as they prepare to switch places at an Archer Daniels Midland grain river terminal along the Mississippi River Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, in Sauget, Ill. The potential closure of the river due to low water levels has raised concern for barge companies and others who use the river for shipping with a prolonged shutdown of the river possibly costing billions of dollars in losses.
AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

  Complicating matters are two rock pinnacles impinging on barge traffic on the river south of St. Louis. 

  U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, said Tuesday the corps could have crews beginning to blast the pinnacles as early as next week —  two months ahead of schedule —  in what would be an important step in helping keep the shipping channel open, though it remains unclear how long such work might take.

  The corps hasn't publicly discussed the matter this week, and a national spokesman for the agency told The Associated Press on Wednesday he was trying to sort out the timing of the pinnacle-removal effort.

  The corps removed many rock pinnacles in the southern Illinois area more than two decades ago. Sonar wasn't as advanced in the late 1980s and new technology recently revealed formations the agency missed near the southern Illinois towns of Thebes and Grand Tower.  

The Coast Guard has said it does not expect to close the river. But Tom Allegretti, president and CEO of American Waterways Operators trade group, said any additional restrictions on barges will leave the river "as good as closed." 

  "This is still very much a crisis situation," said the group's Ann McCulloch.