U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin will host a meeting of government and business leaders Monday morning in East Alton to discuss measures being taken to keep the Mississippi River open to barge traffic despite low water levels.
"During the meeting, the Corps will provide a briefing on their efforts to maintain navigation and take questions about their plan -- which includes blasting rock pinnacles and increasing dredging -- to keep the Mississippi open for business," a Durbin staff member explained about the purpose of the meeting. Business leaders will be given an opportunity to voice their concerns about how the situation is being handled.
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Colin Fogarty said there has been an increase in incidents of barges hitting bottom as the river level decreases. But, although the Mississippi's shipping channel was blocked by a grounded barge last week south of Memphis, so far no barges have been grounded in the St. Louis region.
"It's been gradually going down," Fogarty said. "But it's going to start dropping pretty precipitously to negative 4.2 (feet below gauge) within five days from now.
"It is getting a lot more narrow," Fogarty said of the shipping channel. "We've had a couple of bump and goes but no major groundings so far. That's because the men and women who operate on America's western rivers are incredibly good at what they do. But there is no rosy picture for the future. As the level continues to decrease, there are going to be limitations on river movement."
The meeting will include members of Illinois' Congressional delegation, Gov. Pat Quinn and leaders from the agriculture, shipping, coal and petroleum industries. While a news conference is scheduled to follow the meeting, which will start at 8:30 a.m. at the Jerry F. Costello Confluence Field Station, the meeting is not open to the media or the public.
Because of the continuing drought that started over the summer, the Mississippi River is expected to fall to 5 feet below gauge at St. Louis before the end of the month and near 6 feet below in January. That could leave the barge channel less than 7 feet deep and potentially close it down to shipping.
The all-time record low for the river at St. Louis is 6.2 feet below gauge set in 1940.
Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at email@example.com or call 239-2626.