Mississippi River Low Water: Out of the Woods?

Waterways Council Release
18 January 2013

River transportation continues to garner headlines ever since the 2012-2013 drought began endangering barge movements.

The Corps of Engineers completed the removal of 365 cubic yards of limestone in the river on Saturday, January 12.  The work, combined with heavy rains during that weekend, raised the Mississippi about six feet higher than from its levels at Thebes just two weeks earlier.       

The welcomed rain helped replenish the near-record low channel, keeping everyone’s eyes on river gages, and moving contractors off the job of rock removal to allow the river to recede.  The National Weather Service forecast on January 17 indicates the Mississippi at Thebes will quickly fall back after January 28 or 29.  Lower levels will allow more efficient removal of the remainder of the rock pinnacles in play.

That same NWS forecast shows river levels at St. Louis falling dramatically over the next two weeks:

    - 3.0 ft. by 01/20/2013
    - 4.0 ft. by 01/23/2013
    - 5.0 ft. by 01/27/2013

The original plan to begin rock removal at Thebes and Grand Tower, IL in February was sped up in large part to WCI and its member companies, associations, and unions urging Governors, Congress, and President Obama to allow the Corps to contract the work out sooner than originally planned.

The rock pinnacle removal is in two phases, with the first (clearing pinnacle rocks within the channel) on schedule to end by the end of January.  The contract for the second phase should be awarded by the end of this month and will focus on widening the channel for better traffic flow.

The Corps indicates that enough rock pinnacles were removed to ensure a 9-foot channel (and 300-foot width) down to a 0-foot stage at Thebes.  As of the afternoon of January 17, the river level at Thebes was 12.55 feet.

The historic low at St. Louis (since the Missouri River Reservoirs have been fully operational) occurred in December, 1989 with a stage of -5.32 feet.  The current drought has caused levels to fall as much as -4.39 (a daily average, not an instantaneous reading) at St. Louis (on January 1, 2013).

The Corps also supplemented the middle Mississippi by releasing water from Carlyle Lake in Illinois.  The releases from Carlyle flow into the Kaskaskia River, which enters the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Cape Girardeau, near Chester, IL.  This work came as a result of WCI urging the Corps to look at all possible options to replenish dropping river levels back in November 2012.

Meanwhile, for the Upper, two lock closures will sever connectivity along the Upper:  Lock 6 closed for dewatering on December 3, 2012, with winter maintenance taking place until March 10.  

The main chamber of Lock 27 closed December 10, 2012 for repairs to the damaged cell on the downstream side.  Lock 27 is slated to reopen March 1.