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
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
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.
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.”