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A Sinking Feeling

January 26, 2013
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Workers began removing 890 cubic yards of limestone from the navigation channel on the Mississippi River near Thebes, Ill., on Dec. 17. The rock is left over from blasting that occurred during the drought of 1988-89.  

Written by Nate Birt & Tyne Morgan

Farmers, shippers worry about commerce with low Mississippi River levels

As Mississippi River levels drop, it’s no wonder farmers are getting a sinking feeling. "It’s a Superhighway 101," says Steve Launius, a producer who grows wheat, soybeans and corn in Washington County, Ill., near the Mississippi River. Producers are using the river more now than 20 years ago because of international demand for U.S. agricultural products, he says.

The drought-stressed river is threatening to halt barge traffic, putting a vital infrastructure vein at risk. It hasn’t been this low since the winter of 1988-89. During that time, the Mississippi River shut down in the St. Louis area for nearly 30 days.

So far this year, the U.S. Coast Guard hasn’t closed the river. But sinking water levels pose a major threat to barge traffic because they expose rock pinnacles, a group of which are located near Thebes, Ill., south of St. Louis.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is required to maintain a 9' channel depth for shipping. It hopes to meet that stipulation in part by removing the rock formations. While the Army Corps originally planned to do that by bringing contractors to perform blasting, further assessment revealed that mechanical removal would be the most effective and safest option. As the river drops, it’s a race against the clock.

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The shipping channel must be at least 9' deep and 300' wide for barges to travel safely.

"If you ground on sand, that’s a problem, but if you rip open on a rock, that’s a serious issue, so we want to make sure we can keep commerce moving safely," says Mike Petersen, spokesman for the St. Louis branch of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The rocks are left over from the blasting that happened during the 1988-89 drought. During that time, about 125,000 cubic yards of rock were removed from the river at Thebes and Grand Tower.

Pinnacle removal has gone better than expected, and the 10' deep channel of water is expected to facilitate shipping through at least the end of January, says Martin Hettel, senior manager of bulk sales with St. Louis-based AEP River Operations. Rain and snowfall in January contributed to the extra depth.

Each month, 8.8 million tons of agricultural goods and other products are shipped between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill.

"Economics is going to shut the river down," Hettel says. It would take 11,750 trucks per day or 3,000 rail cars per day to compensate for lost barge traffic, he says, and those quantities are impossible to achieve.

He thinks the Corps of Engineers should do more to help ensure the river stays open. One  suggestion from Hettel and farm groups such as the National Corn Growers Association is to release water from the Missouri River.

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - February 2013

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