With water levels in the Mississippi River at near historic lows and weather forecasts saying levels will not rise dramatically soon, lawmakers in Washington, DC, have stepped in to try and find a way to keep stalled barge traffic moving.
At risk, they say, is the movement of $7 billion in agricultural products, including grains, oilseeds, fertilizers and chemicals, as well as coal and petroleum. The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) says more than half of spring fertilizer moves upriver and moving it by other means, including rail, is limited. Complicating the drought-reduced river levels is annual action by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reduce Missouri River water flow into the Mississippi as part of a federal plan to maintain irrigation systems and the water requirements of the Missouri Basin. That reduction began November 11.
While shippers have called on the Corps to stop limiting Missouri River flow into the Mississippi, the Corps says it’s mandated by law and can’t arbitrarily cease its flow reduction program. The Waterways Alliance in Washington, DC, says the Corps has the authority to halt its program; it simply chooses not to do it.
Also in question is a project the Corps is set to begin under which it will blast rock formations along the Mississippi River to allow barge traffic to move despite the low water levels. However, that project isn’t set to begin until February. Sen. Tom Harkin (D, IA) called on President Obama to declare an emergency situation to increase the Missouri River water flow to the Mississippi and accelerate other river navigation projects, including the rock blasting. Key river state Senators and House members were set to meet with the Corps this week to discuss both the Missouri flow controversy as well as expediting the blasting program. Previously 15 Senators and 62 House members wrote to the Corps to tell them to begin the blasting project as soon as possible.