U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin is heaping praise on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for moving quickly to remove rock pinnacles in the Mississippi River that threaten barge traffic during low water.
The Corps of Engineers is confident the move will keep barges moving on the Mississippi despite historically low conditions. But barge operators are skeptical.
"The Army Corps of Engineers has wasted no time in awarding a contract to demolish these rock pinnacles and improve navigation on the Mississippi River," said Durbin. "In addition, the Army Corps of Engineers has agreed to brief those directly impacted by the Mississippi's low water levels on its strategy to prevent serious disruption to traffic along the river."
The Corps of Engineers has assured Durbin that it believes the Mississippi can be kept open. In a letter to the senator it wrote, "rock pinnacle removal, dredging, Upper Mississippi River releases, and the limited Missouri River flows currently authorized are expected to be sufficient to sustain navigation on the Middle Mississippi River."
Barge operators, however, remain unconvinced that the Mississippi can be kept open without the release of water from the Missouri River, a move the Corps of Engineers has steadfastly refused to consider. Michael Toohey, president and CEO of the American Waterways Council, said he doubts removing the rock pinnacles will be enough to keep the river open.
"While this is welcome news, it only solves part of the problem to avoid an effective Mississippi River shutdown to commerce," Toohey said. "The release of sufficient water from Missouri River reservoirs during the time this rock pinnacle work takes place is essential to preserving a 9-foot channel on the Mississippi River that will sustain commercial navigation and the movement of our nation's critical commodities and exports."
The Mississippi River on Thursday was 2.6 feet below gauge at St. Louis and falling. That's nearly 6 feet below the normal depth or about 12 feet deep in the channel. While it has fallen more slowly than originally expected, it is expected to reach 5 feet below gauge by Friday, according to the National Weather Service. It could reach 6 below in early January. The all-time record at St. Louis is 6.2 feet below gauge recorded in 1940.
Durbin said he plans to soon hold a meeting to discuss ideas about how to keep the river open to commerce despite increasingly challenging conditions due to low water levels.
"I plan on convening the meeting as soon as next week with the Army Corps, local officials and stakeholders," Durbin said.
A Democrat from Illinois and a native of the metro-east, Durbin is a member of a group of lawmakers that has pushed the Corps of Engineers to expedite the effort to remove the rock pinnacles near Thebes, about 125 miles south of St. Louis. The bottom of the Mississippi there is rock instead of clay like most other places.
The work to remove the rock pinnacles was originally planned for February but an emergency was declared, allowing the Corps of Engineers to more quickly issue a contract for the job.
Durbin said the work could start as soon as next week.
Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 618-239-2626.