The Corps of Engineers expects the snow that has blanketed the Midwest in recent weeks to be of little help in solving the low-water crisis on the Mississippi River.
"The good news is that the channel is still open," Corps of Engineers spokesman Mike Petersen said. "With ice forming up-river, it's probably going to deal a tougher hand. It would take a whole lot of snow to get us out of the danger zone. When you're in a drought condition, most of the water stays on land as the snow melts, it won't run off."
The river reached 4.3 feet below normal at St. Louis on Monday, according to the National Weather Service. And, despite the recent snow, it remains on a pace to fall to its record low of 6.2 feet below normal by Jan. 13. That level hasn't been seen since 1940.
Ann McCullouch, spokeswoman for the American Waterways Operators, a coalition of barge operators, said she believes barge traffic on the Mississippi River could grind to a halt in the next few days.
"The full majority of towboats cannot operate at less than a 9-foot draft, so the majority of navigation will cease on or around mid-January according to this latest forecast without more water," McCullouch said. "The continued uncertainty regarding what drafts will be available continues to choke freight movements just as much as the low water itself. Without certainty that the water will be there when barges reach Thebes, shippers continue to light-load based on worst-case scenarios, or continue to cancel trips altogether."
Petersen said the low water is believed to have played a part in a barge tow running aground Sunday near mile marker 142 in the Chester area. He said while barge pilots have reported bumping the bottom of the river at spots, this is the first actual grounding he's aware of.
"Given the conditions, that's remarkable," Petersen said. "You'd expect to here more about things like that. But we've been working hard to keep things flowing, and the barge operators have been being very cooperative. So we've been very fortunate to this point not to have too many problems."
Petersen said the Corps of Engineers currently has two dredges working between Alton and Cairo to keep the channel open. A third is on call in the Memphis region, ready to move in to help.
If there is a bright side to the low water conditions, Petersen said it is that work to remove rock pinnacles on the river bottom near Thebes has been easier.
"We've been able to pass traffic through that area nearly every night," Petersen said. "Contractors have been able to make progress much faster than we thought they would. So, hopefully, that will help in the long run."
McCullouch said the river is closed for 16 hours a day at Thebes while the work goes on and is only open for barges to pass during the other eight hours of the day.
Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 239-2626.