ST. LOUIS (KPLR) - With extreme drought threatening to shut down barge traffic on the Mississippi River in St. Louis within days, a political battle is raging. The Army Corps of Engineers is cutting back flow from the Missouri River into the Mississippi at a time when the Mississippi and the economy need that precious water most.
Now, there are calls for President Obama to do something about it. A 'doomsday' letter from oil, farm, manufacturing, steel, and river industry leaders has just landed at his desk.
“It`s just been one battle after another trying to navigate through these low times,” said Mark Fletcher, operator of the Ceres Barge Line in St. Louis.
The extreme drought conditions that hampered barge companies and drove up shipping costs in the summer, have not improved.
Now, the Corps is cutting off the flow from dams on the upper Missouri river in states like South Dakota, primarily to protect reservoirs and recreational interests there.
That could make the Mississippi impassable in St. Louis.
“We`re in the middle of a drought and the confusing part for most laymen is, you don`t think of drought being when it`s cold weather. For us, the drought just continues whether it`s cold or hot,” Fletcher said.
“I think what need to be able to say to the people in the Dakotas and Montana is releasing water is not going to hurt you and will certainly help us. If it looks like it's going to be a terrible thing for them in the Missouri River area, then we're in a for a fight,” said U.S. Senator, Dick Durbin, (D) Illinois.
At same time the Corps is dredging the Mississippi here to keep the channel clear, the Corps is also cutting the flow from the Missouri, which will likely mean more dredging.
That doesn’t make a lot of sense to industry leaders. In the letter, they ask the president to order the Corps to change course;
saying million of barrels of U.S. crude oil that will no longer be able to ship on the Mississippi, will have to be replaced by imports; the shipment of $7 billion worth of cargo - from coal to soybeans - will be delayed with devastating economic consequences.
“We`ve got a terrific bean crop that we had this year, in spite of the drought. There`s terrific demand around the world for that bean crop. So, there`s plenty of soybeans to ship...what the industry is asking for to my knowledge is, to give us another 30-60 days of water today, then delay the opening of the additional flows in the spring time. So it`s really just shifting the seasons,” Fletcher said.
He said barges companies have already cut load sizes and barges per tow, to get through critically low water, driving up costs, which is already hitting Americans in their pocketbooks.
Industry leaders also want the Corps to take immediate action to remove rock pinnacles in the water between St. Louis and Cairo, Illinois, which have become hazards to navigation with the extremely low water levels. Experts predict the Mississippi River could close to barge traffic in a little more than a week.
President Obama has yet to respond.
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