Mississippi River barge operators and shipping groups asked President Obama to declare a state of emergency on the drought-lowered river and direct the Army Corps of Engineers to keep it open to commercial traffic to avert an "economic catastrophe." Water levels on the Mississippi River along the busy stretch from St. Louis to Cairo, Ill., are expected to recede to record lows by mid-December, effectively halting barge traffic there.
"This is an economic disaster in the making and the Administration needs to act now to stop it," says Mike Toohey, president and CEO of Waterways Council Inc.
In a letter to the White House and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the American Waterways Operators, the Waterways Council and 16 other groups asked that the president order the Army Corps to immediately remove river-bottom rock at two locations where it poses a risk to boats during low water conditions.
The Army Corps already has plans to use explosives to remove the rock formations, but the work isn't expected to begin until early February. The emergency declaration would expedite the project.
The groups also requested that water releases from dams on northern sections of the Missouri River, which flows into the Mississippi at St. Louis, not be reduced as planned. The request was made pursuant to section 501(b) of the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988.
The Army Corps is directed by the Missouri River Master Manual to adjust the flow from upriver dams on the Missouri to conserve water in a series of reservoirs, which are maintained for drinking water, power generation, navigation, recreation and other purposes.
On Nov. 30, the Corps began a gradual seasonal reduction of outflow from the Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota, the lowermost dam on the Missouri. The Corps intends to cut the dam’s winter outflow more than normal this year due to the drought, eventually reducing it 68% by Dec. 11.
The Missouri River normally accounts for about 60% of the water flow in the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Cairo, but that share was closer to 80% this year because of the drought-reduced flow on the Mississippi.
Waterway trade groups say that if the Mississippi River is closed in December and January the impact will run into the billions of dollars as transporting goods to and from the Gulf by rail or truck would be substantially more expensive.
A river shutdown would certainly have negative consequences for U.S. agriculture as increases in transportation costs would negatively affect the competitiveness of U.S. grain and soy exports while also driving up the cost of imported production inputs such as fertilizer and seed.
Separately, the governors of Iowa, Illinois and Missouri, 15 U.S. Senators and 62 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have also written the Obama Administration in recent weeks seeking to keep the river open.
Editor’s note: Richard Brock, Corn & Soybean Digest's marketing editor, is president of Brock Associates, a farm market advisory firm, and publisher of The Brock Report.