ST. LOUIS (KMOX) - There may not be an end in sight for the drought that has plagued the Midwest and most of the nation this year, but the Coast Guard says there’s no reason barge traffic will have to stop on the Mississippi.
“The United State Coast Guard is confident that we can maintain that navigation through setting up a vessel traffic management service and implementing measures such as one-way traffic schemes, as well as Coast Guard assistance vessels,” Coast Guard Lieutenant Colin Fogarty said.
He said there will be dredging operations on the river that will allow for deep enough channels, regardless of how low the water gets.
“The United States Coast Guard is confident that a firm plan and coordination between all interested parties can result in a safe, navigable waterway, despite these historic low water conditions,” Fogarty said.
But a spokeswoman for the American Waterways Operators isn’t as confident that the river will remain navigable.
As KMOX reported last week, rock blasting to increase water flow on the Mississippi will begin in January but AWO Spokeswoman Ann McCulloch says starting in January is too late.
“There is a risk there that the later that work begins, and the water levels continue to fall, you are going to see severe impediments in navigation because of those rock pinnacles in December,” McCulloch said.
“We have definitely heard that barges are, if they’re not being loaded lighter already, some are indeed lessening cargo. You’re starting to see the ripple effects now,” she added.
Lawmakers from several states along the Mississippi had urged the Army Corps of Engineers and President Obama to release more water from the Missouri River in order to aid the Mississippi, but to no avail. Army Assistant Secretary Jo-Ellen Darcy, in a letter to lawmakers Thursday, rejected the plan, citing optimism that the planned rock blasts would be enough to keep the river navigable.
New United Soybean Board Chairman Jim Stillman says that if the river has to be shut down, the economic impact on farmers and others in the industry would be “huge.”
“This is an important time for a lot of barge traffic to come up and down the river,” Stillman said. “Crops are trying to be exported out of the country and also to bring fertilizers up for next spring.”
80 percent of all U.S. soybean exports occur between September and March and Soy Transportation Coalition Executive Director Mike Steenhoek says the low water levels are forcing shippers to shift to rail.
“Any kind of supply disruption during this critical time of the year is very similar to having a supply chain disruption for retailers prior to the Christmas season,” he said.
“Rail, while very efficient and quite reliable, is a higher cost mode of transportation than barge,” Steenhoek said, adding that it will add costs for everyone from farmers to consumers.
He estimates a complete shutdown of the river would cost inland waterway shippers and their customers $7 billion.