A World War II minesweeper, once submerged, lay exposed in the Mississippi River near St. Louis in late November. The lack of rain has left many rivers at low levels unseen for decades.

Colby Buchanan, Associated Press

Drought threatens shipping on Mississippi

  • Article by: JOHN SCHWARTZ
  • New York Times
  • December 23, 2012 - 8:39 PM

The Mississippi River is still open for business -- for now. January is another story.

A Midwestern drought has brought the river to levels so low that they threaten to shut down shipping on one of the world's largest navigable inland waterways. The Mississippi, which carries some $7 billion in trade in a typical December and January, is expected to be closed to navigation between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., when water levels dip toward the 9 feet of depth necessary for most tugboats to clear the bottom.

Those who ship goods up and down the river have asked the federal government to do two things: to destroy rock formations known as pinnacles in southern Illinois that hinder navigation when the water is shallow, and to release more water from reservoirs along the upper Missouri River. The Army Corps of Engineers is working on the first request, using excavating equipment to break down the formations. Officials said the work should take 30 to 45 days.

The corps has rejected requests for large-scale water release from the upper Missouri, saying that it does not have the authority to use that water to aid navigation on the Mississippi.

A coalition of businesses involved in trade along the Mississippi and sympathetic lawmakers have asked President Obama to order the water released.

It could soon be too late to prevent a partial closure. Water takes two weeks to come down from the upper Missouri River reservoirs, and predictions released by the corps over the weekend suggest that without substantial rain, the water levels could dip below 9 feet by Jan. 11.

With the threat of a shutdown ahead, farmers might decide to hold their grain instead of shipping it more expensively, said Gregory L. Guenther, a farmer and corporate consultant.

Rick Calhoun, president of Cargo Carriers, a part of Cargill, noted that carriers are already loading barges more lightly to deal with the water depth, which also ends up raising costs.

"We put less product in the barge, it takes longer to get there, and we use more fuel per barge," he said. And, he added, "We're going to be running into very difficult issues."

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