ST. LOUIS — The Mississippi River level is dropping again and barge industry trade groups warned Thursday that river commerce could essentially come to a halt as early as next week in an area south of St. Louis.
Mike Petersen of the Army Corps of Engineers said ice on the northern Mississippi River is reducing the flow more than expected at the middle part of the river that is already at a low-water point unseen in decades, the result of months of drought.
The river level is now expected to get to 3 feet at the Thebes, Ill., gauge on Jan. 6, a juncture that could force new limitations. Worse still, the long-range forecast from the National Weather Service calls for the river to keep falling, reaching 2 feet on Jan. 23.
The Coast Guard remains confident that the nation's largest waterway will remain open. But officials with two trade groups — the American Waterways Operators and Waterways Council Inc. — said in a joint news release that even if the river is open, further limits on barges will bring commercial traffic to a halt.
Thebes, about 150 miles south of St. Louis, is a treacherous spot for barge operators because of hazardous rock formations and a big bend in the river. The corps is in the process of removing the rocks but work isn't expected to be finished until mid- to late-January at the earliest.
The trade groups renewed their call for presidential action requiring the Corps of Engineers to increase the flow of water from an upper Missouri River dam in South Dakota. The corps cut the flow by two-thirds in November because of drought conditions in that region, reducing the amount of Missouri River water flowing into the Mississippi.
Michael Toohey, president and CEO of Waterways Council Inc., said that without the additional flow "we will have run out of time on this national crisis."
The depth of the Mississippi is regulated by dams north of St. Louis, and the depth increases south of Cairo, Ill., where the Ohio River converges. But the roughly 180-mile stretch from St. Louis to Cairo is approaching record lows. Experts say that if barges stop moving, the potential impact on shipments of essentials such as corn, grain, coal and petroleum could reach into the billions of dollars.
Drafts, or the portion of each barge that is submerged, are already limited to 9 feet in the middle Mississippi. If the river gauge gets to 3 feet at Thebes, the Coast Guard may be forced to limit drafts even further. Restricted drafts mean less cargo per barge. Officials with the trade group say that if drafts are restricted to 8 feet or lower, many operators will halt shipping.
Lt. Colin Fogarty of the Coast Guard said the agency remains confident "we can still maintain a safe, navigable waterway despite the low-water conditions."
But he acknowledged, "I'm not trying to paint a pretty picture here. We face very real, physical limitations at certain parts of the river that may inhibit barge operators because their vessels draft too much or push too much water."
Contractors hired by the corps have been using excavators on barges to remove the rock pinnacles near Thebes, and performed the first series of explosions on the pinnacles Friday. Further decisions on when to blast will be made on a day-to-day basis, Petersen said.
The corps released water from Carlyle Lake in southern Illinois earlier this month, a move that helped the river rise about 6 inches. Petersen says another release began Thursday, which will add another 6 inches of depth by around Jan. 6, a move aimed at trying to stave off barge restrictions.
Fogarty said every effort is being made to help barges keep moving, but don't expect any magic turning point.
"There is no silver bullet," Fogarty said. "This isn't a battle against the water. This is a campaign."