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Water Levels Dangerously Low On Mississippi River

Mississippi River water levels are reaching near-record lows. Sections of the middle Mississippi River may become obstructed in December by rock outcrops in southern Illinois. The Army Corps of Engineers plan to remove the rock pinnacles in February, but river navigation industry leaders say that's not soon enough.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Barge companies are urging President Obama to declare an emergency along the Mississippi River. After a summer of drought, water levels on the river are near-record lows, and they're expected to worsen in the coming weeks. That has towboat operators worried. As Jacob McCleland, of member station KRCU, reports, they fear the lack of water will run their industry aground.

JACOB MCCLELAND, BYLINE: I'm standing under a railroad bridge on the rocky banks of the Mississippi River at Thebes - a tiny, river town at the extreme southern end of Illinois - on a cold, breezy afternoon. Last year, the gauge here read 45 feet. Today, it's about 5 and a half feet. This is one of the places that the barge industry is worried about because beneath these shallow waters, rock outcrops on the river's bed shaped like rocky fingers jut upwards, threatening navigation.

CRAIG PHILIP: When emergencies happen, you take emergency action, and we think that's what's called for here.

MCCLELAND: That's Craig Philip, CEO of the Nashville-based Ingram Barge Company. River commerce between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., could come to a screeching halt in less than two weeks because the corps recently reduced the flow of water from the Missouri River upstream. Shippers want the corps to remove the rock outcrops and divert more water from the Missouri River, but the corps says it can't - or at least, not yet. At a recent news conference, Philip and others who depend on this river for commerce said that wasn't acceptable.

PHILIP: The agricultural community will be affected. We won't be able to get fertilizer in up here so that the farmers can begin preparing for their spring planting. We won't be able to get the grain out.

MCCLELAND: About 60 percent of the country's grain exports, and 20 percent of its coal for electric generation, travel by river; and those barges keep lots of big trucks off the road. Each towboat with 15 huge, rusty, metal barges can haul the equivalent of more than 1,000 tractor trailers, so nobody wants shipping here to grind to a halt. But even with dredges in the middle of the river and lighter loads on barges, it's still not enough. Now, it comes down to blowing up underwater rock pinnacles - a highly specialized job, according to the corps' St. Louis district commander, Col. Chris Hall. He hopes that work will begin by the end of January, and it could last for two months.

COLONEL CHRIS HALL: It really boils down to what can you actually do physically, and it just takes time. And it's a very technical process to go through, to remove this material. It's not an easy job.

MCCLELAND: That's not fast enough for Mike Toohey, head of the Waterways Council, a river industry trade group.

MIKE TOOHEY: Starting Dec. 10th, commerce will be interrupted, and we will have no solution until March. There's just no sense of urgency in the government that this is a crisis and needs to be addressed.

MCCLELAND: Here's where it gets even more complicated. The corps is releasing less water from reservoirs on the upper Missouri River. That water is used for irrigation, recreation and other uses upstream, and acts as a water insurance policy in case of persistent drought. That drought could threaten water supplies in small towns, and even put hydroelectric power at risk. And even if the corps wanted to give the Mississippi River more of the Missouri's water, it says it can't. The corps' Jody Farhat says it's required to follow the Missouri River master manual.

JODY FARHAT: We cannot vary our operation to serve things that are not included in the master manual, and the master manual includes no provisions to provide support to Mississippi River interests.

MCCLELAND: So there are really few good options here. Even if the corps could blow up the underwater rocks tomorrow, that project would shut down navigation for at least half a day - for up to two months. Politicians up and down the river are pleading with the corps to release more Missouri River water, but it appears the barge industry will need more than political support. What it really needs, to keep this river viable for freight, is lots and lots of rain.

For NPR News, I'm Jacob McCleland in Cape Girardeau, Mo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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