River industry: Anti-drought efforts hurt commerce

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River industry officials say drought-fighting measures taken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers threaten to further disrupt barge traffic on the Mississippi River or even close the river to commerce, jeopardizing about $7 billion in shipments of grain, coal and other commodities.

Corps officials are restricting the amount of water being released from reservoirs they manage on the Missouri River, saying the water could be needed because of drought conditions in the region. Industry officials counter that reducing the source of more than half of the water that eventually flows down the Mississippi could leave the nation's biggest river too shallow for barge traffic.

Problems could occur as early as mid-December, 18 industry groups said in a letter sent Tuesday to President Barack Obama, Federal Emergency Management Agency officials and Assistant Secretary of the Army Jo-Ellen Darcy.

The groups warned of "an economic catastrophe in the heartland."

One Pittsburgh-based barge operator said there is going to be "a real, real problem."

"If we can mitigate it in any way, we should be doing that," said Peter Stephaich, chairman of Campbell Transportation.

His Houston, Pa., company operates a fleet of 500 barges and moves about 20 million tons of coal and other commodities annually. He said shipments of coal from the Upper Ohio River down the Ohio and then up the Mississippi could be affected.

"Anything making a right as it leaves the Ohio River is going to be impacted," Mr. Stephaich said.

James McCarville, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission, said not much traffic moves between Pittsburgh and the upper Mississippi but "It's an issue that we're concerned about because we think the system as a whole has got to function."

Companies that use rivers to move goods have faced disruptions since this summer because the drought reduced the depth of the Mississippi. Now they are worried about the river from just north of St. Louis to Cairo, Ill., particularly a five-mile stretch at Thebes in southeastern Illinois.

Patches of rock emerging from the river bed that are scheduled to be removed this spring will present even more of an obstacle to barge traffic if the river becomes more shallow.

National Corn Growers Association Chairman Garry Niemeyer said the Missouri provides 60 to 70 percent of the water in the Mississippi between St. Louis and Cairo. Reducing the flow of water from the Missouri reservoirs will reduce the depth of the Mississippi to about 5 feet, he said.

"It's going to get to the point to where it's just going to shut [the Mississippi] down," said Mr. Niemeyer, who grows corn and soybeans on a 2,100-acre farm in Auburn, Ill.

He said an estimated $3.2 million of grain moves from the Upper Mississippi to New Orleans from December to March. Barges moving back up the river bring fertilizer that farmers will need in the spring and only 30 to 40 percent of those shipments have been made to date, Mr. Niemeyer said.

American Waterways Operators spokeswoman Ann McCulloch said barges are being loaded at less than capacity in order to accommodate a 9-foot deep navigation channel. Optimum conditions are a 12-foot channel, she said. Moreover, barge operators have had to break up "tows" -- groups of up to 20 barges -- into smaller units in order to navigate the shallower river.

"That just adds to the cost at the other end or takes away from profit," Mr. Niemeyer said.

Monique Farmer, a spokeswoman for the Corps' division that oversees the Missouri region, said the agency is bound by Congress to manage the reservoirs for irrigation, flood control, recreation and five other prescribed purposes. She said the Corps is not allowed to consider impacts farther down river.

In their letter to Mr. Obama, the industry groups asked the president to order the Corps to release enough water from the reservoirs to provide a 9-foot channel and to accelerate work on removing rocks from the section near Thebes, Ill. Industry groups also persuaded members of Congress to send letters asking Ms. Darcy, the Corps commander, to do the same thing.

Mr. Stephaich said the two measures would make the Mississippi 18 to 24 inches deeper.

Corps officials plan to award the contract for removing the rock in late January or early February and expect the work to take 60 days.

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Len Boselovic: lboselovic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1941.


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