Blasting to remove pinnacles of rock that stick up from the river bottom is scheduled to begin this week at two key points along the Middle Mississippi River between St. Louis, Mo., and Cairo, Ill. Two contractors will work simultaneously for the next 30 to 45 days on priority locations. A third contractor will continue the work for all remaining work locations to enhance safety for barge traffic sometime early next year.
That’s according to Leonard Hopkins, chief of the hydrologic and hydraulics branch for the St. Louis District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He spoke last week during a series of presentations about river levels at a meeting of the St. Louis AgriBusiness Club.
"It’s a superhighway 101," says Steve Launius, a producer who grows wheat, soybeans and corn in Washington County, Ill., near the Mississippi River. He says a balanced approach is needed to maintain the river’s flow. It costs less to send agricultural shipments by barge than by other means of transportation. Producers are using the river more now than 20 years ago because of international demand for U.S. agricultural products such as soybeans, he says.
Getting products where they need to go and the cost of shipping are two top issues for Goat Patterson, president of Osage Marine Services Inc. The St. Louis-based shipping company transports agricultural goods such as grains and fertilizer, along with other products, up and down the Mississippi. While river levels in early December sat at -2.1 feet, they are projected to fall to between -6 ½ and -7. If that happens, shippers will be forced to load less cargo to keep barges from scraping the river bottom, which in turn means higher costs for customers trying to move their goods.
"It doesn’t look very promising at all," Patterson says.
The rocks are left over from blasting that happened during the 1988-89 drought, Hopkins says. During that time, 125,000 cubic yards of rock were removed collectively from the same two sites along the river at Thebes and Grand Tower.
The surveying technology available in the late 1980s couldn’t locate all of the rock on the river bottom, so the leftovers–6,700 cubic yards–remained. A 2006 bid for work to remove the remaining rock went unfilled because the responding contractor’s price was too high. A contractor tried to use mechanical grinding to wear down the rocks beginning in 2009 but didn’t have success because of the strength of the rocks, prompting the decision to resume blasting this year.
"Economics is going to shut the river down," says Martin Hettel, senior manager bulk sales with St. Louis-based AEP River Operations. He says 8.8 million tons of agricultural goods and other products are shipped between St. Louis and Cairo monthly. 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.
What’s more, nearly 10,000 jobs could be in jeopardy between Illinois and Missouri alone if river traffic grinds to a halt, he says.
Depending on the severity and duration, it’s possible the economic repercussions of a long river shutdown could be greater than those of Hurricane Sandy, says Paul Rohde, vice president of Waterways Council, Inc. for the Midwest area. He says farmers should reach out to their respective governors and U.S. congressional representatives to press for action on the issue. His organization and others have developed talking points about the significance of the Mississippi River.
"Without significant and sustained rainfall, this isn’t going anywhere anytime soon," Rohde says.