ST. LOUIS (KMOX) - It’s an issue that has plagued states along the Mississippi River for months and has now landed squarely on the desk of President Obama: how to prevent the imminent shutdown of commercial traffic along the nation’s largest waterway.
A nationwide drought, the worst to hit the U.S. in decades, has lowered water levels along the river, threatening barge traffic.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Thursday that the President raised the issue with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at Wednesday’s cabinet meeting, directing his administration to take “every step to mitigate” the situation. Carney added that there are a number of “complex” legal and technical steps which can be pursued, saying the Army Corps of Engineers has taken “proactive” measures.
The biggest obstacle is jagged rocks jutting up from the bottom of the Mississippi which make it impossible for barges to move.
“The Corps needs to get in there and literally blow them up to get them out of the way or we will be either extremely limited or completely shut down some time between December 15 and December 30,” Senior Vice President of Regional Advocacy for the American Waterways Operators Lynn Muench said. “If we do lose the river between mid-December and January, the jobs that are at risk in Missouri are almost 3,000 jobs.”
Muench said she’s reached out to President Obama and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, mirroring an effort Thursday by Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster.
“If commercial navigation is significantly impaired or eliminated because of navigation hazards, there will be catastrophic consequences to the economy of the nation’s heartland, including Missouri, which will reverberate throughout the country,” Koster wrote in a letter to Mr. Obama.
Koster warned that a plan by the Army Corps of Engineers to reduce flows from the dams on the upper Missouri River will worsen the problem.
When asked if her group had received any response from federal officials on the matter, Muench said “not yet.”
“The bottom line is, I think most of the congressional members in the Mississippi River states in both the Senate and the House understand how critical this is,” she said. “We’ve received no positive response yet from the administration.”
A new report shows the drought has worsened for a second straight week. The weekly U.S. Drought Monitor report released Thursday shows that 62.7 percent of the continental U.S. was in some form of drought as of Tuesday.
“We’re not seeing anything in the near term, in terms of beneficial, widespread rainfall in this area or immediately upstream on the river, that would indicate that would be of help,” National Weather Service meteorologist Mark Fuchs said, adding that ”the shorter days and the cooler nights” are lessening the effects of the drought.