The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers believes it can win a race with Mother Nature to keep the Mississippi River open to barge traffic.
Maj. Gen. John Peabody, Mississippi Valley Division commander, said work to remove rock at the bottom of the channel near Thebes is going faster than originally expected. While water levels are expected to fall to five feet below normal in the next two weeks, Peabody said he thinks the rock excavation will be completed by Jan. 11.
"The Corps rock removal contractors are making excellent progress in removing the rock obstructions from the primary area of concern," Peabody said. "We believe we will deepen the channel ahead of the worst-case river stage scenario, and I remain confident that navigation will continue."
Peabody said the work at Thebes, about 125 miles downstream from St. Louis, is expected to keep the river channel at the required nine feet deep by removing two feet of material from the bottom.
Leaders in the shipping industry remain concerned about the condition of the river and continue to call for the Corps of Engineers to add more water from upstream.
They believe it's only a matter of time until the river becomes to shallow to navigate since National Weather Service reports indicate that later this month the river could challenge the all-time record of 6.2 feet below normal set in 1940.
"The uncertainty of this deteriorating situation for the nation's shippers is having as much of an impact as the lack of water itself," said Michael J. Toohey, Waterways Council Inc.'s president and CEO. "The administration must direct the Corps to release enough water to sustain navigation on the Mississippi River now or time will have run out and an effective shutdown could remain in place for weeks."
According to barge industry leaders, more than 8,000 jobs, more than $54 million in wages and benefits, and 7.2 million tons of commodities valued at $2.8 billion could be lost in January because of low water conditions.
Toohey said he thinks by releasing only about 1 percent of the water in the Missouri River reservoirs the river could be kept open through January. But Corps of Engineers leaders say they're prohibited by law from releasing the water.
Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 618-239-2626.