Action urged to save shipping on drought-smacked rivers

  • November 12, 2012 - 9:25 PM

The barge industry and a Midwestern governor are imploring the federal government to take steps to keep enough water flowing on the drought-ridden Missouri and Mississippi rivers to avert economic disaster.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has issued an urgent plea to the Army Corps of Engineers to continue providing sufficient water flow from the Missouri to the Mississippi River. Current corps plans would reduce the amount of water released from the Missouri's upstream reservoirs starting next week.

"I urge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to avert potential economic disaster on this vital avenue American farmers use to get their goods into the world market," Nixon wrote to Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army.

Meanwhile, the American Waterways Operators and Waterways Council has urged Congress and President Obama to act or else there could be a halt to the transportation of goods on the Mississippi.

The corps said last week that the flow reduction to minimum winter levels is the first of several conservation measures necessary if drought conditions persist into 2013. The agency said precipitation levels remain below normal over the entire Missouri River basin.

Winter typically is a low-water period on the two big rivers, but the situation is more dire this year, with many points along the waterways at or near historic lows.

The low levels have been months in the making, fueled by the nation's worst drought in decades.

To compensate, barge companies now are required to carry lighter loads, costing them more per ton to move cargo but also reducing chances of running aground as crews hustle to dredge silt and other sediments from the river to clear passages. One estimate put barge industry losses at $1 billion the last time the Mississippi was this low, in 1988. But barge company executive P.B. Shaw said that conditions had improved by November of that year.

"Right now, that doesn't appear to be the case," said Shaw, president of Nashville, Tenn.-based Ingram Barge Co. After months of logistical headaches forced by the drought, "I'm kind of numb. That's a little exaggeration, but it's been a real tough year" and shows no signs of easing, as climatologists broadly expect the drought to carry into 2013.

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