The Mighty Teeny Mississippi

By Michael J. Toohey, President and CEO of the Waterways Council, Inc.
Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Just as the nation averted the fiscal cliff, it looks as if the inland waterways industries narrowly escaped its own fiscal waterfall. At press time, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers indicates that, despite record low water levels, the Mississippi River will be able to sustain navigation through the spring for towboats and barges. This is welcome news for shippers, operators and the U.S. economy that relies upon a robust export market facilitated by the waterways transportation system.   
The crisis unfolded back in November when the Corps began its standard reduction of water flows from Missouri River reservoirs. Normally this wouldn’t affect navigation on the Mississippi River, but given the 2012 drought, historically low-levels of the river, and the fact that this year 79% of Mississippi River water flows come from the Missouri; a disaster for commerce lay ahead. 
Waterways Council (WCI), The American Waterways Operators, National Waterways Conference, and 15 other national organizations sprang into action and submitted a letter to President Obama and the Federal Emergency Management Agency requesting a Presidential declaration of emergency and seeking “immediate assistance in averting an economic catastrophe in the heartland of the United States.” The request was made pursuant to section 501(b) of the Stafford Act, which allows citizens to ask for emergency action.
The letter called attention to the worsening situation on the Mississippi River from the reduced Missouri River flows and rock pinnacles that were exposed near Thebes and Grand Tower, Illinois, significantly impairing the flow of commerce.
The authors warned that the economic impacts of a Mississippi River closure would be dire, placing $7 billion in key products such as corn, grain, coal, petroleum, chemicals and other products at risk in December and January alone. This included over 7 million tons of agricultural products worth $2.3 billion; over 1.7 million tons of chemical products worth $1.8 billion; 1.3 million tons of petroleum products worth over $1.3 billion; over 700,000 tons of crude oil worth $534 million; and 3.8 million tons of coal worth $192 million.
The groups called for two things: for the Corps to immediately remove the rock pinnacles and to release water from the Missouri River reservoirs as is necessary to preserve a nine-foot channel on the Mississippi River to sustain commercial navigation. 
A ground-swell of support began to grow from mid-west Governors, Congressional delegations, shipping, agriculture, manufacturing, labors groups, towboat operators, and others who recognize the importance of the Mississippi River as a critical national transportation artery and economic cornerstone. Illinois Senator Richard Durbin, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, Missouri Senators Blunt and McCaskill and 11 other senators took a leadership role in meeting with the Corps and urging action to keep the river open. On the House side, 62 Members of Congress, led by Congressman Aaron Schock, joined together on a bipartisan basis to keep commerce moving.     
The Corps was responsive and did expedite the rock pinnacle removal work at Thebes, Illinois. In fact, the project was finished several weeks ahead of schedule. This work allowed an additional two feet of navigation depth to the channel. The Corps also released water from Carlyle Lake Reservoir to augment water depth on the mid-Mississippi.
The industry is grateful for the efforts of the Obama Administration, Senator Durbin, and the many other Senators, Members of Congress, and Governors from Mississippi River states, who have underscored the importance of maintaining barge traffic on the nation’s busiest water transportation artery.
Sadly, economic damage has been done as a result of the uncertainty of the situation on the river.  Since November, barge operators and shippers had to base operating decisions about loading, transiting and purchases based on the best available, though changing, estimates. In some cases, the size of tows carrying essential commodities for export and domestic use had been cut in half; transit times more than doubled; orders were cancelled or curtailed; and jobs were jeopardized.
The industry hopes that the latest prediction by the Corps to keep the navigation channel open through the spring remains in place, and that the Mississippi can remain Mighty.

(As published in the February 2013 edition of Marine News -

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