Justin Wingerter

ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – Two trade organizations have released a concerning statement, suggesting that a commercial shutdown of the Mississippi River could come as soon as next week due to low water levels.

The American Waterways Operators and Waterways Council Inc. released the joint statement Thursday morning. The groups say they met with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Christmas Eve and were briefed on the 28-day weather forecast for the area near Thebes, Illinois. While original estimates warned of a shutdown in mid-January, the latest figures suggest traffic on the continent’s largest waterway could come to a halt by January 3 or 4.

According to the two groups, vessel drafts will be limited to 8 feet by late next week. Towboats require a nine-foot draft to operate while a “very small number of towing vessels can operate at 8 or 7-foot drafts.”

Follow our complete coverage of the Crisis on the Mississippi:

The Corps of Engineers and Coast Guard have repeatedly claimed that a rock blasting effort near Thebes will release enough water to prevent a shutdown but the trade groups aren’t as optimistic.

“The Corps’ rock pinnacle removal and dredging work and our collective prayers for rain have not produced enough water to sustain navigation on the Mississippi River and so the [Obama] Administration must act to avert a closure,” Waterways Council, Inc. President and CEO Michael Toohey said in a release. “We have been urging action all along and the time is now to release needed water or we will have run out of time on this national crisis.”

“Unless the Administration takes action now, the nation risks 60 days or more without waterborne commerce on the mid-Mississippi River,” American Waterways Operators President and CEO Tom Allegretti said. “We urge the White House to authorize the release of additional water immediately to maintain navigation on our country’s busiest and most important waterway.”

The organizations say 20,000 jobs, $130 million in wages, and $7 billion in commodities are threatened by the looming shutdown.

This graph, formulated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, shows predicted Mississippi water levels.

This graph, formulated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, shows predicted Mississippi water levels.

“I think we’re already at a crisis state,” AWO Vice President of Regional Advocacy Lynn Munch said bluntly. “It continues to look bleak and the newer predictions are looking bleaker, that we’ll actually be at a point where most tugboats can’t move on the middle Mississippi in the next few days.”

As for rock blasting efforts, Munch says they should have been initiated decades ago and are ultimately too little and too late. Both the AWO and Waterways Council continue to push for more water to be released from the Missouri River, a move the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been unwilling to commit to.

Munch says the groups met with “White House officials” earlier in the week but added that little progress was made. “I’m not sure anything came out of it other than us making the case to the White House that, if they’re concerned about keeping commerce open on the Mississippi, they needed to act. Obviously, we haven’t seen anything.”

According to Munch, the AWO is talking with the Army Corps of Engineers and Coast Guard on a daily basis and with the White House and congressional allies “as often as possible.” The Corps of Engineers did not return a call Thursday from KMOX seeking comment on the latest forecasts.

     (Footage from Illinois Farm Bureau and Illinois Corn Growers Association.)

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