After Drought, Reducing Water Flow Could Hurt Mississippi River Transport

New York Times
26 November 2012
By John Schwartz

The drought of 2012 has already caused restrictions on barge traffic up and down the Mississippi River. But things are about to get a lot worse.

As part of an annual process, the Army Corps of Engineers has begun reducing the amount of water flowing from the upper Missouri River into the Mississippi, all but ensuring that the economically vital river traffic will be squeezed even further. If water levels fall low enough, the transport of $7 billion in agricultural products, chemicals, coal and petroleum products in December and January alone could be stalled altogether.

“Without the river, we’re in a world of hurt,” said Kathy Mathers, a spokeswoman for the Fertilizer Institute. About half of the spring fertilizer that the industry sells to Midwestern farmers travels upriver, she said, and options to get the fertilizer to the fields by other means are few. “We know the rail cars aren’t there,” she said. The corps reduces water flow from the upper Missouri every year as part of its master plan for maintaining irrigation systems and meeting other water needs of the region, which stretches from Montana to St. Louis. This year the process began on Nov. 11, as the corps began reducing water flows from the Gavins Point Dam near Yankton, S.D. The flow has already been reduced from 37,500 cubic feet per second to 26,500, and will reach 12,000 by Dec. 11.

The plan, approved by Congress, has the power of law. “We do not have the legal authority to operate the Missouri River solely for the benefits of the Mississippi River,” said Monique Farmer, a spokeswoman for the corps.

Michael Toohey, the chief executive of the Waterways Council, a group that lobbies on behalf of inland carriers, operators and ports, said that argument rings hollow. “The corps could do it,” he said. “They have the authority to do it. They don’t have the will to do it.”

Water levels on the Mississippi near St. Louis are approaching record lows — and whether or not the Coast Guard actually closes down navigation, the effect on shipping will be the same, said Martin Hettel, a senior manager at the American Electric Power River Operations. “Economics will shut the river down,” he said.

Carriers have so far responded to low water by loading barges with less cargo so that they will ride higher in the water, reducing their own efficiency. But as the river level continues to drop, Mr. Hettel said, “you can load the barges lighter, but if you don’t have a light-draft towboat you can’t move them.”

The effects, he predicted, will not be felt by businesses alone. “When the cost of shipping raw materials goes up, the consumer ends up paying for that,” he said.

Maj. Gen. John W. Peabody, the commander of the Mississippi Valley division of the corps, said at a Nov. 16 news conference in St. Louis that the corps has been actively dredging the river and has released smaller amounts of water from other reservoirs, but has to think about long-term response to the drought. “Some people compare this to a battle,” he said, but “I compare it to a campaign — this is not something we can solve in a few days, or a few weeks, or even if a few months if we have a persistent enough drought.” He added, “We’re going to have to husband our resources for when the situation gets truly dire — and in my personal estimate, we are not there yet.”

The reservoirs along the upper Missouri are already 20 percent below the levels that normally get the region through the coming year’s drought season and that allow commercial navigation on the Missouri between April and November, said Charles Shadie, chief of the watershed division for the Mississippi Valley division; “they are already concerned that they may not have a full navigation season on the Missouri next year.”

The corps is also taking on a blasting project, which will allow traffic to proceed despite the low water levels. The project will eliminate rock formations known as pinnacles in Southern Illinois at Thebes and Grand Tower, but the work is not projected to begin until February. Fifteen senators and 62 House members have asked for the government to speed up the process.

Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, who was the principal author of the Senate letter, said that disrupting traffic along the Mississippi, “has the potential to impact the entire economy along the river — everything from increasing the cost to move goods to potential job losses.”

He called for President Obama to issue an emergency declaration to increase water flow from the Missouri and to get rid of the pinnacles quickly.

“The only person that’s going to be able help us is the person who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” Mr. Hettel said. “Unless we get rain.”

At the St. Louis news conference, General Peabody jokingly recommended an appeal to an even higher authority. “If anybody knows how to create rain upriver of where we are today, I encourage you to leverage the impact that you have,” he said.