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As Mississippi River level drops, prices could rise

A barge makes it's way up Mississippi River near St. Louis  Mo.

A barge makes it's way up the Mississippi River near St. Louis , Mo.

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Updated: January 3, 2013 6:21AM

There’s a serious water shortage on two of America’s great rivers.

The Missouri and Mississippi rivers are at the center of a drought-related bind that could further drive up food prices for shoppers and slow the delivery of bulk commodities like road salt and fuel in and out of Chicago.

Already approaching historic lows, the Mississippi River is now dropping lower because it’s purposefully receiving less water from the Missouri River. This is part of a government-mandated process that aims to sustain water levels in the Missouri River basin, which stretches from Montana to St. Louis.

If the Missouri flow to the Mississippi through the Gavins Point Dam near Yankton, S.D., doesn’t increase immediately, the Mississippi River will drop even lower, further revealing dangerous rock pinnacles near Thebes, Ill. that may totally shut down barge traffic on the Mississippi by Dec. 10.

“In our minds, this is a serious crisis,” said Ann McCulloch, spokeswoman for American Waterways Operators, a trade industry representing America’s tugboat and barge industries. “We wouldn’t be using those words if it weren’t.”

The Mississippi River is America’s main artery for shipping mass commodities like recently harvested Illinois corn and soybeans. The goods float on tugboat-powered barges down the river to the Gulf of Mexico, where they are exported. Non-food commodities, like salt for the Chicago area’s snowy roads, are also pushed in barges up the river year-round.

Because of the 2012 drought, barge traffic was already slower than usual this season. Tugboats couldn’t push as many barges down the narrower river. If they wanted to float in the shallower water, barges couldn’t hold as much quantity.

The American Waterway Operators estimates that closing or severly restricting the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., because of the rock pinnacles could:

Delay 300 million bushels of grain exports worth $2.3 billion.

Cost $545 million to import foreign oil because 5 million barrels of domestically produced crude oil would not be able to be transported on the river.

Delay 3.8 million tons of coal needed to fuel American power plants.

The trade group estimates the total impact would exceed $7 billion and, in Illinois, put nearly 6,700 jobs worth $50.3 million in wages at risk.

“The end result of all this is that consumers can see prices run,” McCulloch said. “There’s a case to be made that because of the volume of commodities that are moving on the river there is virtually no way for the consumer not to feel some kind of impact.”

On Nov. 29, following a meeting with the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, Illinois Sens. Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk announced that the Army Corps will expedite removing the pinnacles, which was originally scheduled for early in 2013. But even this fast-track might be too slow — the corps still needs to bid out the contract and hire a contractor.

Letting more water in from the Missouri River isn’t a quick fix, either. Federal law limits the amount of water that can flow through the Gavins Point Dam, though those hoping to prevent a Mississippi River shutdown are trying to figure out a way to establish new policy, quickly.

“In the (Nov. 29) meeting, we asked the Army Corps to get information on what the impact will be if the water is released” from the Missouri into the Mississippi, said Christina Mulka, Durbin’s deputy communications director. “It’s making the case that if they release the water it won’t do more harm than good.”

Laws and politics aside, this year, the Missouri River doesn’t have much to give.

The Missouri is already low, and is estimated to be drawn down 10 to 12 feet by the spring of 2013, said Monique Farmer, Army Corps spokeswoman. This is impacting everything from Native American tribal lands, where burial sites and arrowheads could be exposed and potentially looted if the water dipped lower, to possible issues with sufficient drinking water in rural areas, Farmer said.

“There are eight congressionally authorized purposes on the Missouri River,” including maintaining water levels for endangered species, Farmer said. “In order for us to serve those purposes then we have to have enough water to do that.”

McCulloch of the barge industry trade group said at this point, the only thing that can potentially avert economic catastrophe on the Mississippi is a presidential emergency order to cut through the red tape.

“The bottom line is nothing has really changed,” she said. “We’re still waiting to see when the Corps of Engineers can do this work. And in our minds, as those water levels drop it needs to happen very, very quickly.”

For George Foster, who owns J.B. Marine Service, barge repair service south of St. Louis, the view from his office of the Mississippi River now features an Army Corps dredge, a sign of a tough year that’s about to get tougher.

“If I had a wish list it would be for a lot of rain north of St. Louis and that the corps could expedite a contractor so they could remove those rock pinnacles,” Foster said. “This is going to be a prolonged drought. There is no precipitation they can see anytime in the future. I think we’re in for a long, hard winter.”

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