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Army Corps Pushes Back Against Lawmakers’ Mississippi River Plan

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Mississippi River, KMOX/Brad Choat
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ST. LOUIS (KMOX) - With a December 26 deadline looming for the Mississippi River to rise or risk an interruption in barge traffic, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin and others are calling on the Army Corps of Engineers to release more water from the Missouri River.

But Joe Kellett, Deputy District Engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers, says that’s not an easy thing to do.

“If we recognize there’s a drought across the entire Midwest, that means they don’t necessarily have the water to release to support the Mississippi River,” Kellett said.

He said under current Corps policy, the Missouri River water is “for authorized purposes on the Missouri River.” Those include navigation, irrigation and recreation. As a result, Kellett isn’t sure whether the plan can be implemented due to “legal incumbrances.”

Kellett said Thursday that the decision to use the Missouri River would be made by the Corps’ northwest division, which manages water control. They decide how to employ the Corps’ master manual.

Durbin’s request didn’t get much attention Thursday at a major conference of river experts in St. Louis. J. David Rogers with the Missouri University of Science and Technology at Rolla said there isn’t enough water in the Missouri to make a difference.

“[Durbin] can ask whatever he wants to ask for and can ask them to look into it and they need to educate him and educate the farmers, his constituents, about how precious the resource is and how many different things you have to look at,” Rogers said. “You can’t just open up the gates and let the water out.”

Sixty percent of the nation’s agricultural exports go down the river, at a vastly cheaper rate than air or train transportation.

“Far and away, we benefit enormously as a culture to be able to just take all these bulk grains and put them in these 73 towed barges and push them with one big diesel engine down the Mississippi River,” Rogers said.

The Corps of Engineers announced yesterday that it will soon begin a multi-million dollar project to blast jagged rocks on the Mississippi that pose a threat to barge traffic.

“What we’re trying to prevent here could be much worse,” Army Corps of Engineers Chief Hydraulic Engineer David Gordon warned. “When [barges] ground on top of rock, much different than sand, they can tear a hole into their barge, spill out the cargo, sometime the cargo is very dangerous. It’s not just grain but something liquid.”

A revised Mississippi River forecast offered a bit of a reprieve for shippers Wednesday, showing the water level isn’t dropping as quickly as feared. The river at St. Louis on Wednesday was about 13 feet deep.

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