THEBES, Ill. — Barge operators on the Mississippi River say the worst drought in 80 years may put at risk gains from emergency dredging and rock removal aimed at keeping the nation's busiest waterway open at least for this month.
"The only way that we could maintain a navigable channel would be releases from the Missouri River system" if Mississippi conditions worsen, Scott Noble, a senior vice president for Ingram Barge Co., said Monday at a meeting in southern Illinois. That option is "probably not very likely," he said later in an interview.
Shipping company officials joined the Coast Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers and lawmakers including Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Monday in Thebes, a hamlet on the eastern bank of the Mississippi where rocks pose the greatest hazard to river traffic. Emergency dredging and excavation work will keep the river navigable for most towboats at least through this month, Corps of Engineers officials said.
The Mississippi River in a typical January carries as much as $2.8 billion in cargo, including grain, coal and crude oil, according to the American Waterways Operators, an Arlington, Virginia-based industry group. The worst drought since the 1930s has exposed submerged rock formations and shrunk the river to levels that may become too shallow for navigation.
"We are not out of the woods, and further assurances are needed to provide industry with certainty that is needed for sound business and transportation planning beyond January," Tom Allegretti, chief executive officer of the waterways group, said Tuesday in a statement. River depths less than 9 feet may impede tow boats needed to move barges, the operators have said.
The Army's engineers declined to forecast navigation conditions for next month or beyond. While precipitation typically increases during the spring, the past isn't always an accurate indication of the future, said officials including Noble of Nashville, Tennessee-based Ingram.