Commentary: When the river runs dry

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If something barring an epic flood doesn’t happen within days, the Mississippi River could be too low for navigation. Because of this year’s severe drought, waterborne commerce on the middle Mississippi River is in real danger.

For barges to move through the Mississippi River there has to be at least nine feet of water throughout the navigation channel. Current projections show that as early as mid-December, water levels in some areas of the river will fall below the 9-foot draft. With barge travel moving the majority of America’s commodities (one barge can carry 1,750 tons compared to a rail bulk car’s 110 tons and a tractor trailer’s 25 tons), and the Mississippi River being the main thoroughfare, the U.S. economy could be in drastic trouble if water levels aren’t maintained.

In December and January alone, it’s estimated the economy could take a $7 billion hit. Included in this projection is the loss of up to 20,000 jobs and $130 million in lost wages. To avoid the catastrophe, the American Farm Bureau Federation, along with other business groups, has urged President Obama to issue a presidential declaration of emergency for the Mississippi River.  They’ve also requested that he direct the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to immediately remove rock pinnacles along the river and release enough water from Missouri River reservoirs to preserve the 9-foot water level.

AFBF’s transportation specialist Andrew Walmsley says that a balanced approach is needed: a moderated but steady release of water to keep the Mississippi River flowing, coupled with the removal of large rocks to give barges more clearance in low water areas. This effort by the corps would provide a short-term solution until spring rains could help refill the river.

If the Corp doesn’t act soon, agriculture is looking at major delays in shipping its goods – like an estimated 300 million bushels of grain and oilseeds worth more than $2 billion. What happens – or doesn’t happen – on the river could have a major impact on U.S. agriculture’s global competitiveness. This is a busy time of year for farmers who are shipping out their products, trying to stay in front of South American exporters who have a later harvest. Getting the commodities to port in a timely manner is crucial for exports, but it also helps that the barges can be refilled with fertilizer and seed to go back up the river in time for spring planting.

The Mississippi River is America’s inland waterway superhighway. Aside from agriculture goods, the river transports other essential products that keep America running, like petroleum, coal and steel.  If the river gets too low it will threaten everything from domestic consumption to foreign exports, claiming manufacturing industries, power generation and thousands of Midwest jobs in its wake. As the old Irish proverb goes, you never miss the water till the well has run dry.

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SD  |  December, 17, 2012 at 02:49 PM

No one wants to lose the means to ship down the Missssippi. Apparently, no one wants to look beyond the seemingly easy solution of demanding those who sacrificed so much land to hold back flood waters in the Missouri River in SD, ND, and MT, either. Could that be because those states are regarded as 'fly-over country', with few paople, therefore the wishes of the many should trump that sacrifice? The upper MO River state of SD is one of the more arid states in the country, especially west of that 'river that runs through it'. It is very painful for us to see our state flooded, as in 2011, to protect down river interests, THEN to have demands made that we release the precious little stored in the river right now, to once again serve down stream interests. If, as appears very likely, we have drougth again in 2013, that water will be desperately needed for people, cattle, and fish (a huge recreation income for people in SD and ND). Granted, there is need for barge traffic, but isn't it time to look east for the source? Those normally high rainfall areas draining down the major rivers, such as the Ohio, with dams in AL, TN, KY, store lots of water. Why couldn't some of that water be released, as there is a higher chance those dams will be refilled next spring and summer? Maybe the channe could be made even deeper and allow water from the gulf to flow up the channel when shipping is threatened. If that last one doesn't seem reasonable, just how reasonable is it to build cities below sea level as has been done on the lower end of the Missippi R.??? What would be wrong with tpping into the water rich

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