Keeping the Boats Moving Along a Mississippi Dwindled by Drought

New York Times
17 January 2013
By John Schwartz

ST. LOUIS — For months along the Mississippi River here, the withering drought has caused record-breaking low water levels that have threatened to shut down traffic on the world’s largest navigable inland waterway.

That closing has not happened, however — and now officials are predicting it will not. “It looks to me like we’re about to get out of the woods here,” said Maj. Gen. John W. Peabody, commander of the Mississippi Valley Division of the Army Corps of Engineers. “I am very confident that we will be able to sustain navigation for the rest of the season,” until the river comes up naturally with the spring rains and snow melt.

The fact that the river has remained open for business along the critical “Middle Miss” — the 200 miles between the Mississippi’s last dam-and-locks structure, above St. Louis, down to Cairo, Ill., where the plentiful Ohio River flows in — stems from a remarkable feat of engineering that involved months of nonstop dredging, blasting and scraping away of rock obstructions along the riverbed, effectively lowering the bottom of the channel by two feet. It has also involved exacting use of reservoirs along the vast river system that were initially designed by engineers using slide rules nearly 100 years ago to try to manage both flood and drought, as well as rock structures placed in recent years along the bank to direct water and speed it up, a bit like a thumb over the end of a garden hose.

During the most delicate weeks of the low-water crisis, the corps ordered its engineers and water managers to tweak upstream reservoirs, with some staff members waking up every two hours through the night to check river levels and to release precise amounts of water as needed, without wasting a drop.

“This is a game of inches,” said David R. Busse, the chief of the engineering and construction division for the St. Louis district of the corps — and in this case, the tired sports metaphor is literally true.

The effort has allowed the corps to maintain the river’s 300-foot-wide navigation channel at a depth of at least nine feet. While that is no deeper than many swimming pools, it is just enough to keep tow boats and their barges afloat, though loaded more lightly than the shippers wish.

The shipping industries, fearful that the drought could cause an unprecedented extended shutdown, had in recent months called for the engineering corps to release even larger amounts of water from reservoirs along the upper Missouri River, which provides nearly half of the water flowing past St. Louis. They also urged the administration to speed work on removing the rock obstructions, which was not likely to begin, without a strong push, until February or later. They took the fight all the way to the White House, and worked with powerful lawmakers including Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.

Mr. Durbin worked closely with White House officials like Pete Rouse, counselor to the president and a former Durbin chief of staff. He, along with like-minded lawmakers, urged the administration to speed the work on the rocks, and to keep the option of using the Missouri open.

But Mr. Durbin acknowledged that “if we have to face the Missouri River option, it’s going to be very contentious.” Such a move would inevitably set off lawsuits from states that benefit from the Missouri’s waters, arguing that the administration was violating the laws governing federally mandated uses of the Missouri.

In December, President Obama entered the discussion in a staff meeting, when he asked, according to Mr. Durbin, “Are we moving and doing everything we should?” Soon after, barges with underwater jackhammers, excavators and blasting equipment were working the river near the small town of Thebes, Ill., breaking the rock and scooping it away.

As for the Missouri River, a White House official said all options remained on the table, but the administration decided to rely on the advice of its engineers, who argued that a nine-foot draft (plus one foot of water to flow under the vessels) could be maintained without tapping the other river.

Despite the success in keeping the Mississippi open, the effects of the low water can be seen up and down the river, both in reduced barge traffic and in the disarray caused by receding waters. At the offices of JB Marine Service in St. Louis the other day, the company’s president, George Foster, listed to one side as he walked down the hall toward his office. The offices are on a barge that has floated in the river since 1976, but which is on dry land today. Now the floors are pitched at a 7.3-degree angle, and picture frames have shifted to a crazy angle that brings a carnival fun house to mind.

Mr. Foster does not like the comparison, growling, “It’s not fun anymore.” The grounding of his offices forced JB Marine to move into trailers. “I have been in this industry for 48 years, and I have not seen it this bad,” he said.

Even with the river remaining open, the companies that normally ship billions of dollars in goods up and down the waters each month have suffered, said Debra Colbert, a spokeswoman for the Waterways Council, a group that lobbies on behalf of inland carriers, operators and ports. Assurances from the corps that the river will be open through the spring are welcome, she said, “but the uncertainty about whether the water would be there when shippers arrived had been ongoing since early November, and economic damage was done as a result.”

Many shippers withheld barge runs out of fear that they would launch a shipment that, during its weeks upon the river, could get stalled by a closing. The light loads and smaller clusters of barges being pushed by tows mean that moving goods on the river became more expensive. “Just like the channel itself, shippers, operators and the U.S. economy got squeezed in this crisis,” Ms. Colbert said.

While the immediate crisis appears to have passed, General Peabody of the corps warned that cycles of drought could last for years, as the Dust Bowl showed, and that there are no guarantees when it comes to rivers. “We’ll continue to respond to what nature throws at us,” he said. But, he added, “There’s nothing that man can do that nature can’t overcome.”