Melting snow makes life easier on the Mississippi River

News-DemocratJanuary 13, 2014 

The snowstorm last weekend may have made getting around tough on local roads. But it has made traffic move more smoothly on the Mississippi River.

The river had fallen to nearly 3 feet below normal for this time of year at St. Louis as of Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service. But when Friday showers and warmer temperatures over the weekend started to melt the foot of snow that covered the area, the Mississippi jumped up to slightly above normal, where it is expected to hover for at least the next week.

Lt. Colin Fogarty said the U.S. Coast Guard had to implement its Waterways Action Plan, limiting barge traffic to relatively light loads with no more than nine feet of draft before the addition of the new water into the system. The Coast Guard was also dealing with an increased number of barge groundings despite the limitations.

During the first two weeks of the year there were 14 barge groundings in the St. Louis region, according to Coast Guard statistics. For the same period in 2013, when water was historically low, there were five barge groundings.

"Fortunately, there were no serious incidents," Fogarty said. "The channel was never obstructed for more than a few hours and there was no release of pollution into the river in any of the incidents."

At this time last year, the Mississippi River was about 4 feet below normal at St. Louis and the U.S. Coast Guard was enacting emergency procedures to keep the flow of traffic moving.

The all-time low for the river at St. Louis is 6.2 feet below normal, which happened in 1940.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokeswoman Sue Casseau said work is still underway near Thebes south of St. Louis to remove rock from the bottom of the river to maintain a 9-foot-deep channel.

Casseau said the work at Thebes, a continuation of work started last year, is expected to be completed by the middle of March. But, while deep water is good for barge pilots, it's not so great for the crews trying to remove the rock from the river bottom.

While the Coast Guard doesn't mind the snow, its leaders have been concerned about the extremely cold temperatures that have chilled the region.

"One of the biggest concerns we have had lately is the formation of ice," Fogarty said. "We've had the largest amount of ice in the Mississippi River that we have seen in a decade or more."

Large amounts of ice can block river locks, create natural dams on the river and otherwise prevent traffic from getting through.

"Since the temperature has warmed up, the ice is breaking up a bit," Fogarty said. "Otherwise, it could have got to the point that the river was impassible."

Fogarty said, over the past three years, the people who are responsible for keeping the river open have learned to expect the unexpected.

"We had some of the lowest water levels in almost 100 years last year at this time followed by some of the highest water levels," Fogarty said. "When things change on the river, usually it's a gradual transformation. But the last three years have been an aberration. The river seems to always be throwing curveballs."

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or call 239-2626.

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