GRANITE CITY — The ongoing rock removal around Thebes, Ill., and recent snow and ice here and upriver is helping to keep the Mississippi River channel navigable, for now.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, got a first-hand look at the rock blasting operation on Monday. Later, at a press conference in Granite City, the two commended the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for their work in helping keep the river, which is at historically low levels, from ceasing all barge traffic.
The two Illinois congressmen witnessed the ongoing rock removal under way about 150 miles south of St. Louis that has helped maintain a 9-foot channel needed to keep river commerce moving. The rock blasting has closed navigation 16 hours a day and allowed passage for only eight hours daily over the past few weeks.
The rock-clearing effort is considered vital to ensuring that stretch of river remains open to barge traffic. Industry trade groups have expressed concern that the river could drop to 3 feet on the river gauge at Thebes and further restrict barge traffic or ultimately halt shipping if channel falls to 8 feet or lower.
National Weather Service hydrologists forecast that the river at Thebes could drop to the 3-foot mark on the gauge by Jan. 17 and continue falling to the 1.5-foot mark by early February.
Durbin said the good news is melting ice and snow here and north of St. Louis is expected to keep the river open for traffic through this month. He also said more water has been released into the river from Carlyle Lake, and other water sources are available if necessary as the Corps of Engineers is holding back some more water upstream that can be released if needed.
"As goes the Mississippi, so goes much of the industry in Illinois," Durbin said. "Between this summer's drought and the current upstream freezing, Mother Nature has dealt us a difficult hand when it comes to keeping the river open to shippers transporting goods to market. I wanted to come to Thebes today to get an up-close look at some of the most important work under way to keep the Mississippi open."
"Never to take this river for granted," Durbin said later while speaking to reporters at America's Central Port in Granite City. "It's a critical part of America's future and America's economy. I know that the president is viewing this very personally, very seriously. Two weeks ago in a staff meeting, he raised this question: 'What's going on with the Mississippi River?' At which point I got in touch with the White House, and we started working with other agencies, and their basic message to me was, 'Do what it takes to keep that river open.' And we are determined to make that happen."
The historic low river level has already forced companies to lighten their loads of corn, soybeans, coal, chemicals and other commodities that are regularly transported down the river. Enyart, who was sworn in last Thursday, replacing longtime Congressman Jerry Costello, said that in his short time in office, he has realized how the Mississippi River's navigation is an issue that impacts the world. After meeting earlier on Monday with Illinois Farm Bureau Vice President Richard Guebert, Enyart said that the only current source of corn and soybeans in the world is being transported along the Mississippi.
"I am deeply concerned about the Mississippi River water levels and the significant economic implications for Southern Illinois families and businesses," Enyart said. "While we continue to monitor the situation closely, cooperation among the Army Corps of Engineers, Coast Guard, and industry is imperative. I am confident that by working together, there are important steps to be taken to ensure that traffic continues on the Mississippi and good jobs are not put at risk."
Enyart said the Mississippi River is "where we're feeding the world, and if we can't get those soybeans and corn down, then the consumers of those agricultural products are in trouble until Brazil, Argentina and some of the South American countries' crops start coming in.
"We want to make sure we get those products to market, that we get those sales so that we keep that money flowing into our economy," Enyart added."
Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon has also closely followed the river's status and said she is pleased with the strides that the Corps and Coast Guard have made in keeping the river open.
"We really appreciate the Coast Guard and the Corps and what they've been doing," Simon said. "We are cautiously optimistic."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.