A group of about 40 representatives of government, business and labor met Monday to discuss the importance of keeping the Mississippi River open during a time of extremely low water.
The meeting -- held Monday morning at the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center in East Alton -- was called by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
Durbin said efforts like blasting of rock pinnacles near Thebes, Ill., which began Monday, are examples of how important this issue is to everyone involved and how much is being done to keep river traffic flowing.
"The Mississippi River is the cog that turns the wheel for many industries in Illinois," Durbin said. "I have been in close contact with industry and with the Army Corps of Engineers to ensure we are doing everything we an to keep traffic moving on the river. From farms to coal mines, a great deal of Illinois' economy depends on the Mississippi."
Representatives from stakeholder industries such as agriculture, shipping, coal and petroleum participated in the meeting.
Durbin's comments were echoed by U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Belleville) and U.S. Rep. John Shimkus (R-Collinsville).
"Maintaining river flow is critical to many industries and our national economy," Costello said. "We will continue to meet with officials from affected industries and all pertinent federal agencies to monitor water levels and do everything possible to keep product moving. The rock pinnacle work and increased dredging is a testament to this effort and we will remain focused in this regard moving forward."
In addition to dredging and rock blasting, Costello said water has been released from Carlyle Lake to try to raise the Mississippi River level.
Shimkus said one Mississippi River barge can carry as much as the contents of 80 semi truck trailers.
"We really don't value something until we risk losing it," Shimkus said. "Our inland waterways are a true asset."
Costello said he has spoken with President Obama about the crisis the river is facing. And Shimkus said he's glad to hear it.
"Thank the White House for me," Shimkus told Costello. "It's nice to have an Illinoisan in the White House. I wouldn't have said that a couple of weeks ago."
"The Mississippi River is a vital economic tool that enables our farmers and companies to efficiently ship goods around the world," said Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon. "Transporting those goods on our roads or by rail will cost many times more than shipping them along the river, and many of our Illinois companies - who employ thousands of hard-working men and women - cannot afford those costs. I would like to thank Sen. Durbin for convening this panel of experts, and I look forward to working together to preserve this important economic engine."
Durbin said he has been assured by the Corps of Engineers that removal of the rock pinnacles will be enough to keep barge traffic flowing. But he said he has recently spoken with President Obama about contingencies should the river continue to fall.
"The President has assured me all options are on the table," Durbin said. "That includes releasing water from other sources."
But Durbin warned that there could be a long court battle if an order is issued to release water from upstream.
According to the Corps of Engineers, blasting near Thebes will close the river to traffic for 16 hours a day. The work, which is expected to take about a month, will be handled by contractors working in conjunction. It will cost a little bit more than $10 million, according to Gen. John Peabody, Mississippi Valley Commander of the Corps of Engineers. Thebes is about 125 miles south of St. Louis.
"We came together today as users and stakeholders, industry and government interests, concerned about low water levels on the Mississippi and the effects it could have on the economy locally, regionally, and nationally. I look forward to continuing to work together in a productive way to build on the successes we've had in the last few weeks to maintain navigation on the river," Durbin said.