Representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Coast Guard say recent rain and upstream snow melt have made them confident that they can keep the critically low Mississippi River open -- at least through the end of January.
"I was just out on the riverfront and it started to pour down rain," Corps of Engineers spokesman Mike Petersen said. "It was joyous. I can't tell you how happy I am to see it raining outside. We could use a lot more rain. But, based on the latest forecasts, we're pretty confident we can make it until the end of the month."
And that's key because Petersen said he believes dredging work as well as work to remove rock pinnacles from the river bottom in Thebes is expected to be done by the end of January.
"Our goal is to have a nine-foot channel even if the river hits the record low of 6.2 feet below normal" set in 1940, Petersen said. "If we can get that work done by the end of the month, we should be okay."
The level of the critically low Mississippi River on Thursday was about a foot higher than it was 36 hours before.
The river was 3.1 feet below average Thursday morning at St. Louis, according to the National Weather Service. It was 4.1 feet below Jan. 8. River level forecasts from the National Weather Service have been changed dramatically in the last few days. At the end of the December it was predicted the river would hit the all-time low of 6.2 feet below normal early in January. That figure was pushed back to the middle of the month after snow storms around Christmas. The latest information available Thursday indicated the Mississippi will remain around or above four feet below normal until at least Jan. 23.
Dredgers have removed about 8 million tons of sediment from the river channel over the last month, according to Petersen.
According to leaders of the American Waterways Operators organization, 8,000 jobs and $54 million in wages would be lost if the river had to be shut down to traffic. The group continues to push the Corps of Engineers to release water from upstream to help keep traffic flowing. But Petersen said he thinks that move is unneeded now.
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Colin Fogarty said he has always been optimistic about keeping the river open through dredging and the removal of rock pinnacles from the river bottom near Thebes about 125 miles south of St. Louis. But he said the low water issue is going to continue to be a significant problem all winter and into the spring and summer months. The only long-term solution is substantial precipitation in the upper Midwest.
"Any rain is good rain," Fogarty said. "But we really need about seven days in a row of sustained, heavy rain to have a long-term impact."
Petersen said he doesn't think the river will get back to normal for more than a year.
"We're winning battles, but the campaign isn't over," Petersen said. "We're concerned about the river now. But we're also concerned about what it's going to look like in November and December of 2013."
Petersen said long-range forecasts indicate drought conditions are expected to last through next summer. So the threat that transportation on the river could come to a halt will continue to be a real threat.
"We've already reached daily records for low water," Petersen said. "The fact that we have been able to keep the channel open is a testament to the work that has been done."
Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 239-2626.