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River level so low, could be closed to barges (12/05/2012)
By Sarah Squires

Photo by Patrick Moes.
     The Motor Vessel Marquette Hilltopper is locked through Lock and Dam 2 in Hastings, Minn., April 20.
Industry officials are calling it an economic crisis that threatens more than 15,000 jobs in three states and billions of dollars in wages and stranded commodities. The Mississippi River levels are so low in southern states that the river may be closed to barge traffic within days if quick measures aren’t taken. Lawmakers from across the country are urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to take action to keep the river open, and more than a dozen national organizations have pushed for a presidential emergency declaration to help expedite the work.

Ann McCulloch, Director of Public Affairs and Communications with American Waterways Operators (AWO), said time is running out. “Really, day by day the water level is going to fall,” she said. The usual 12-foot depth that is maintained for barge traffic on southern stretches was reduced to a nine-foot limit earlier this year due to drought conditions. Anything lower than that will virtually halt barge traffic on the Mississippi River, she said, which will result in more than 15,000 lost jobs and billions of dollars in agricultural and other products that can’t be moved—in December and January alone. “We haven’t seen anything like that in quite a number of years,” said McCulloch. “It’s definitely not a theoretical problem. It’s a crisis.”

Drought conditions over the summer reduced the depth in both the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. The Missouri River acts as a tributary to the Mississippi River, but due to a government-mandated program, the amount of water flowing from the Missouri River into the Mississippi River has been restricted in order to maintain adequate water levels in the Missouri River and its basin. A group of federal lawmakers, including Senator Amy Klobuchar, have asked the Army Corps of Engineers to release more Missouri River water into the Mississippi River to help avert continuing Mississippi River depth reductions. Additionally, the group has asked that the Corps remove rock “pinnacles” from the Mississippi River near Thebes and Grand Tower, Ill. As river levels decline, the rock formations become exposed and threaten to prevent the passage of river vessels on that section of the river. The Corps had scheduled removal of the pinnacles in 2013, but is expected to start the process as soon as possible, due to what many are calling a dire situation.

Local barge workers from the Winona area recently traveled south on local tow boats to assist downstream. Once the local barge season ended here, less than two weeks ago, ARTCO employees took the local tow boats to southern waters because the tows used in the Winona port are smaller than those used for southern river work, and thus have an easier time navigating in lower water levels. But industry officials fear that if the water gets any lower than the current nine-foot navigation level, river commerce in the south could halt completely.

An AWO study showing the economic effect of Mississippi River closure to barge traffic in the months of December and January revealed billions at stake (see sidebar). “So much of what we use in our daily lives has its start on the river, whether we realize it or not,” said Tom Allegretti, AWO President and CEO. “Agricultural products are critical exports, but they also fill our grocery stores. Coal that travels on the Mississippi fires our power plants and allows us to have electricity at the flip of a switch. Petroleum becomes gas for our cars, rock salt keeps our roads clear in the winter months. Cement and gravel literally help build construction projects, and chemicals and other raw materials keep manufacturing facilities busy. There is really little that is left untouched by what moves on the river, and there is much at risk if immediate action is not taken.”

Lawmakers met with Corps officials on November 29 to ask that the agency take action to prevent any closure of the river. Earlier in November, 16 national organizations, including AWO, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, sent a letter to President Barack Obama and FEMA, asking for an emergency declaration to expedite Corps efforts to maintain an adequate river depth for barge traffic.

Sen. Klobuchar took part in the November 29 meeting, and recently sent a letter to both President Obama and Assistant Secretary of Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy, urging them to take swift action to deal with the problem. “The Mississippi River is a crucial artery of commerce for Minnesota and ensuring our businesses can continue to use the waterway to transport their goods is critical to our state’s economy,” said Klobuchar. “This year’s drought has been tough enough on farmers and businesses, and the last thing they need is to wade through more red tape to get their products to market. We need to take immediate action to protect this vital waterway to preserve jobs and keep our economy moving.”

“If low water restrictions take effect and my customers are unable to load barges, it will devastate our company,” said Kurt Johnson, Southern Illinois Transfer President and owner. His company ships grain on both the Mississippi and Kaskaskia rivers. “Our employees would certainly be affected. The loss of revenue from a possible closure would take the company years to fully recover from and could imperil our future existence.”

Mike Toohey, president and CEO of Waterways Council, Inc., an advocacy group for the nation’s system of ports and inland waterways, agreed, and said that what is at stake for the Mississippi River is more than just numbers. “There are real people and real families whose livelihoods will be in immediate jeopardy if the Mississippi River cannot support navigation,” he said.

The American Waterways Operators (AWO) prepared a study for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that highlights the economic impact of closing the Mississippi River to commerce for the months of December 2012, and January 2013. Here are some of the highlights:

• Five million barrels of domestically produced crude oil would be replaced with imported crude oil, “costing $545 million additional in imports,”

• Nearly 300 million bushels of agricultural products could be delayed in reaching intended markets, with an estimated value of $2.3 billion for the products,

• Approximately 3.8 million tons of coal would be stranded, valued at $192 million,

• Other barge cargo that would be unable to be transported up or downstream on the river would include: 1,705 tons of chemicals and related products valued at $1.8 billion, 1,582 tons of crude materials valued at $237 million, and 7,793 tons of food and farm products valued at over $2.3 billion,

• An estimated 4,100 jobs on towboats would be affected, along with an additional 15,660 jobs directly related to barge cargo movement, representing an estimated $130 million in wages and benefits. 


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