Work could threaten Mississippi River traffic

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ST. LOUIS -- The Army Corps of Engineers on Friday began reducing the flow from a Missouri River reservoir, a move expected to worsen low-water conditions on the Mississippi River and potentially bring barge traffic to a halt within weeks.

The Missouri flows into the Mississippi around a bend just north of St. Louis. One result of this year's drought, the worst in decades, has been a big drop in water levels on both rivers.

The corps announced earlier this month that it would reduce the outflow from the Gavins Point Dam near Yankton, S.D., to protect the upper Missouri River basin. That drew an outcry from political leaders and businesses downstream, who warned that allowing the Mississippi to drop more could have devastating economic consequences.

Corps spokeswoman Monique Farmer said Friday that the reduction began as scheduled that morning. By midday, the flow that had started at 37,500 cubic feet per second had been cut to 35,500 cubic feet per second. Ms. Farmer said plans call for a gradual reduction down to 12,000 cubic feet per second by Dec. 11 because of the drought.

"We're hoping Mother Nature brings some snow this winter," she said, "but we've been told to expect low, stable conditions, that it's probably going to remain dry."

River shipping trade groups have even asked President Barack Obama to intervene. "This is a pending economic emergency," said Ann McCulloch, director of public affairs for the American Waterways Operators.

A message left Friday with the White House was not returned.

The corps has taken steps to keep the Mississippi open as long as possible, including increasing dredging. It also plans to remove two rock formations in the river in southern Illinois that jut up, potentially scraping barge bottoms when water levels are low. But that work isn't expected until February, although 15 senators and 62 House members in separate letters asked for the rock removal to be expedited.

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