Much needed rain is giving the Mississippi River a big boost, according to the National Weather Service.
Down more than four feet below normal in St. Louis over the weekend, the Mississippi now stands at 2.86 feet below normal levels. By Feb. 1 it is predicted to rise to 1.4 feet below.
"The river level is certainly rising, which bodes well for everyone," U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Colin Fogarty said. "That's primarily because of the increase of rainfall we've had in January. We've had considerably more rain in January than we did in December and November."
But Fogarty said the improvement is expected to be temporary as a drought weather pattern continues in the metro-east.
"We're not out of the woods yet," Fogarty said. "But, while I'm not sure just yet that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, the chances that we're able to make it through the winter (without shutting down the river to barge traffic) are looking significantly better."
The National Weather Service predicted between one to two inches of rain Tuesday. With that water, the river is expected to remain less than three feet below normal through the middle of February.
Fogarty said the rain is needed because snowfall upstream has been less than expected this winter.
"We're really not seeing the amount of snowfall in Minnesota and Iowa like we would normally see by this time of year," he said. "We very well might have less snow melt for the spring."
Without the melting snow from up north, Fogarty said the lower Midwest will rely on local rainfall to keep the river level up.
Earlier predictions indicated that the river could threaten the all-time low water record of 6.2 feet below normal set in 1940. At that level barges, most of which require nine feet of water, would have trouble navigating the Mississippi.
For the time being barges seem to be in good shape with the only obstacle to their travel being work to remove rock pinnacles at Grand Tower.
Crews on Tuesday night moved to Grand Tower, about 95 miles south of St. Louis to work to remove rock pinnacles in the river. The job is similar to emergency work done to remove rock from the river bottom at Thebes 30 miles to the south which started a month ago.
"The Grand Tower project will yield permanent improvements to the Mississippi," said Col. Chris Hall, commander of the St. Louis District. "Rock removal, along with dredging and water management, is a critical component of the Corps' efforts to maintain a resilient and reliable navigation channel."
According to the Corps of Engineers, the work at Thebes was about to wrap up when additional rock was discovered beneath a layer of sand on the river bottom. Now crews are expected to spend another week there to finish up the work.
Until the rock pinnacle work is done, river traffic will be halted periodically to allow crews to do their job.
Fogarty said, fortunately, local barge traffic is not likely to be impacted by another issue on the river.
A barge tow hauling oil crashed into a bridge Sunday near Vicksburg, Miss., which has caused the waterway to be shut down to barge traffic while oil is cleaned up. While Fogarty said barges from St. Louis and points north travel through the area on their way to the gulf of Mexico, the mess is expected to be cleaned up before any traffic from St. Louis could reach that far south. He estimated it would take five days to make the trip from St. Louis south to Vicksburg.
"I don't see any issues directly impacting local traffic because of that," Fogarty said. "Tows from St. Louis ought to be able to pass through the area of the spill by the time they get there."
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