Debate continues over next course of action to combat low Mississippi River levels

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by KMOV.com Staff / AP

KMOV.com

Posted on December 6, 2012 at 6:40 PM

Updated Thursday, Dec 6 at 6:40 PM

ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- The National Weather Service said Thursday the water level in the Mississippi River isn’t dropping as quckly as they feared.

However, there is still cause for concern. The nation’s worst drought in decades has led to low levels. If they worsen, barge operators fear the waterway could become impassable.

This week, a tow carrying several barges actually got stuck near memphis, tying up river traffic.

Thursday Illinois Governor Pat Quinn announced he is working with other Illinois officials to ensure that barge traffic keeps moving.

Among them, Illinois Congressman Jerry Costello II. Costello co-sponsored a bill in the Illinois House urging President Obama to take emergency action to ensure that the water level in the Mississippi River remains high enough for commercial barge traffic.

The concern for everyone involved is where the water will come from. Costello’s – and other lawmakers’- plan aims to raise levels by taking water from the Missouri River.

The Army Corps of Engineers says opening up the Missouri River isn’t the answer.

“You want to make sure you don’t make some knee-jerk reaction that in effect hurts you in the long run,” said Joe Kellet Deputy District Engineer Corps.

Hydrologists agree. While more than 60 percent of America’s barge traffic is on the Mississippi corridor, the repercussions of taking from the Missouri River could be devastating; essentially depleting drinking water from Kansas and Nebraska.

Dr. David Rogers with the Missouri University of Science and Technology says elected officials like congressman Costello don’t really understand what they are asking.

“They need to educate him and the farmer about what the resource is and how many things you have to look at,” he said. “You can’t just simply open up and the let the water out.  There will be repercussions in other places if you start doing things like that. “

River transport is an economic neccessity in recent times, according to Rogers. He says shipping goods by water is still the cheapest route.

“It’s ten times the price to send by rail and ten times that to take it by truck,” he said. “So far and away we benefit by taking these bulk grains and putting them on these 73 tow barges and send them by one diesel engine down the Mississippi River.”

While the couse of action is being debated, the Corps of Engineers will soon start blasting the floor of the Mississippi River near Thebes.  Rock formations in that stretch now threaten barges.  Work will be wrapped up by January 3.

The weekly U.S. Drought Monitor on Thursday said the nation’s drought has leveled off after worsening levels in the previous weeks. More than 62 percent of the contiguous U.S. remains in some form of drought.

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