Army Corps Optimistic About Mississippi River

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Soybean basis bids at St. Louis last week were reported up, with corn basis up on support from a slower-than-expected drop in water levels on the Mississippi River that have allowed grain shipments to U.S. Gulf export terminals to continue. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also said last week it is "cautiously optimistic" that there will be no significant disruptions to navigation on the Mississippi River this winter due to low water levels.

"We remain cautiously optimistic that if we do have any interruptions, it will be short in duration as we continue to maintain a safe and reliable navigation channel," said Maj. Gen. John Peabody, commander of the Army Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division at a Monday briefing.

Maj. Gen. Peabody and St. Louis District Commander Col. Chris Hall met with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate; other elected officials; and members of the agricultural industry in East Alton, Ill., to update them on efforts to keep the river open following the worst U.S. drought in more than 50 years.

Peabody explained the removal of 890 cubic yards of limestone that began this week near Thebes, Ill., is just one measure the Corps is taking to improve the Mississippi’s navigation channel. With the removal of the rock, Peabody said, the Corps’ expects restrictions on barges will not be necessary at this time.

Thebes, about 130 miles southeast of St. Louis, is a key location where underwater rock formations known as pinnacles can damage barges when water levels drop too low.

In addition, in order to boost water levels, the Army Corps on Dec. 15 began releasing more water into the Mississippi from Lake Carleton in southern Illinois. The move is projected to raise the river by 6 in. at Thebes by Dec. 24, providing enough depth for river commerce to pass before the rock formations are removed.

Peabody said the Army Corps is also looking at the possibility of additional releases from other reservoirs, if that becomes necessary. Col. Hall explained the dredging actions the Corps is undertaking and plans to continue through the low water.

Reaction to the Army Corps briefing was mixed. "In a week’s time, the Corps has felt some pressure from above, and they have started work much earlier," Ross Prough, an at-large director for the Illinois Soybean Association and an attendee at the briefing told Reuters News Service. "We're certainly pleased with that development."

However, a river industry trade group said the rock pinnacle removal and extra water from Carlyle Lake weren’t enough. "The release of a modest amount of water from Missouri River reservoirs during the time this rock pinnacle work occurs remains essential to allowing the continued movement of our nation's basic commodities, especially during this critical export season," Michael J. Toohey, president and CEO of Waterways Council Inc. told the Associated Press.

Sen. Durbin said the Obama administration had assured him "every option is on the table" if blasting away rock structures fails to keep the Mississippi open for barge traffic. Durbin said options may include an appeal to the White House to increase the flow of water from the Missouri River into the Mississippi, or the pursuit of a court order seeking the same result.

President Obama helped speed up the hiring of contractors by the Corps to do the blasting at Thebes when he discussed concerns about the river during a meeting last week, Durbin said. Initially, the Corps said it might not be able to hire contractors until February or March.

Last week the National Weather Service’s Advanced Hydrology Prediction called for the Mississippi River Level to fall below minus 5 ft. at St. Louis on Jan. 4. At one time, the river level was projected fall that low as early as Dec. 17.

Mark Fuchs, NWS hydrologist in St. Louis told Reuters on Monday that there is a possibility that snow forecast for the upper Mississippi River area on Thursday could provide some further help for the river level, depending on how warm temperatures become in the wake of that storm.

However, ice "is the worst-case scenario," Fuchs said, as the weather turns colder and freezes the river to the north, further reducing the amount of water flowing downstream and potentially lowering water levels even further.

 

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