Barge companies are rushing to ship through their cargo as the level of the Mississippi River is starting to rapidly fall.
As of Monday morning, the National Weather Service reported that the river was 2.18 feet below gauge at St. Louis -- about 4 feet below where it is typically expected to be this time of year. U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Colin Fogarty said forecasts indicate it is likely to hit 3 feet below gauge by Friday and 4 feet below gauge by Dec. 14. The record low level for the Mississippi at St. Louis is 6.2 feet below normal set in 1940.
"A drop of about a foot in five days is certainly significant," Fogarty said, adding that he expects the water level to drop a foot a week for at least the next two weeks. "But this is what we have been expecting and we've been preparing for it. We're going to do everything we can to keep the channel open."
Fogarty said the rapid drop threatens the all-time low water mark. The problem is a combination of the impact of the drought that has gripped the upper Midwest since the summer and the annual restriction of the Missouri River in the fall.
The river is still open to traffic in both directions, despite the fact that dredging crews are persistently working to deepen the river channel. Crews could be seen from the Jefferson Barracks Bridge working Monday to deepen the channel.
"We're beginning to see the effects at St. Louis and below," Fogarty said. "But, still, there are no restrictions or traffic-separation schemes being used at this point. We know a lot of companies are running lighter barges than they would like to. But we still have a 300-foot channel in St. Louis, although that isn't the case in some places where there are tighter bends to the south."
The low-water conditions seem to be causing more traffic on the river, not less as one might expect because of tougher conditions.
"We are seeing an increase in traffic," Fogarty said. The locks and dams are locking through more cargo as companies try to get things through ahead of the issues we might face in the future."
Mike Quinn, Navigation manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in St. Louis, said barge traffic usually decreases in December and January because most grain produced in the area would have already have been shipped to market. He said in an average month about 615 barges go through the Mel Price Lock near Granite City. As of mid-afternoon on Monday, 60 barges had gone through the lock on that day alone, and six more were lined up waiting their turn. At a pace of more than one barge per hour going through the locks, that would equate to about 750 barges a month.
Transportation companies and manufacturers who use the Mississippi River to get coal, steel, grain, fertilizer and other products to market have urged the Corps of Engineers to reverse its policy of restricting water flow from the Missouri River into the Mississippi River, to increase water levels on the Mississippi. Otherwise, they said, barge traffic may soon not be able to navigate between St. Louis and Cairo.
Corps of Engineers leaders say the move is impossible but that they are currently doing all they can to keep the Mississippi open by dredging and with plans to demolish rock formations near Thebes and Grand Tower.
"There is dredging going on near the St. Louis harbor and south of lock 27," Quinn said. "It's doing the job for now. But to the south, dredging does no good there. It's rock that has to be blasted out."
While Illinois Senators Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk participated in a meeting of federal leaders last week who pushed the Corps of Engineers to move ahead on the blasting, Quinn said he did not believe that work was going to happen imminently.
Meanwhile, the Corps of Engineers and Coast Guard are doing everything they can to keep traffic flowing on the Mississippi.
"Everyone is adapting quite well to the situation," Fogarty said. "The mere fact that the channels are staying in order and the buoys are staying in place are huge accomplishments considering the conditions that everyone is facing."
Quinn said the Corps of Engineers is working closely with barge skippers to try to take care of problems as they arise.
"We're asking vessels to report high spots so we can get the dredgers there as soon as possible," Quinn said.
Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 239-2626.