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Leaders seek help as rivers dry up

Jeff Caldwell 11/28/2012 @ 1:16pm Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

Old Man River may be the next casualty of the drought of 2012.

On a day when lawmakers and leaders from industries depending on river transportation are drafting a letter to send to President Barack Obama later this week asking to keep the Mississippi River flowing despite major cutbacks in Missouri River flow on account of the drought, forecasters say the dryness that's been behind the situation all along isn't likely to ease up anytime soon.

A report Wednesday morning from INTL FCStone Inc. indicated a group of 15 senators, 62 representatives and leaders from the grain, fertilizer, metals and export industries came together to urge the President to create an "emergency directive" that would allow more water from the upper Missouri to flow into the Mississippi and prevent navigation disruptions. The letter also asks if the federal government will mandate "blowing up rock formations that are hazardous at coming water levels," according to FCStone's daily report to its customers.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) is one of those lawmakers pushing for the continuation of navigation on the river system, something that he says could "impact agriculture, increasing the cost of moving product to market as well as necessary shipments like fertilizer.

"To maintain navigation, we need action to increase water flow from the Missouri River into the Mississippi.  We also need to take immediate steps to enable the destruction of rock formations under the Mississippi River, which will allow navigation with less water.  A presidential emergency declaration with orders for those actions seems the most likely way that will occur, which is why I am working to make that happen," Harkin said Wednesday.

The requests come just 2 days after the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) began drawing down water levels on the Missouri River, a move industry members fear could send Mississippi River levels low enough to hinder all navigation, including the movement of grain to the Gulf of Mexico.

What exactly is the group asking for? There are 2 parts to the emergency directive, one legislative assistant said Wednesday. First, it's to maintain ample flow from the upper Missouri River to allow navigation to continue on the Mississippi. Secondly -- and arguably more critical to the longer-term navigability of the river system -- the group's seeking a "sole source" directive that would allow the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct rock demolition to basically deepen the river channel so navigation can continue with lower inflows from the Missouri.

If ACE is granted the authority to move forward with the rock demolition -- which will focus on the area between St. Louis and Cairo, Illinois -- the process will take 2-3 months, the staffer said. The ultimate goal will be to maintain a 9-foot-deep channel, the required space for most all barge traffic on the Mississippi. That will cut the water needs in the river by 20,000 cubic feet/second. Once completed, navigation will likely be safe through the winter "until sometime next year," the aid said.

But, the bad news is there's not a whole lot of relief in sight for the parched area in the central U.S. that includes the Missouri and Mississippi river basins. The already low water levels could sink to the point where all transportation may have to cease altogether.

"With little precipitation expected across the central U.S. over the next two weeks, water levels will continue to drop along the Mississippi River, nearing historic lows," says MDA EarthSat Weather senior ag meteorologist Kyle Tapley. "The Mississippi River at St. Louis is typically shut down to barge traffic when the water drops below -5.00 feet, so there is a very real threat of significant disruptions in the shipment of grain in the U.S."

Right now, the river level's expected to sink below that critical point by December 11, which Tapley says would put the Mississippi at its 5th-lowest water level on record with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

"With little precipitation expected across the central U.S. over the next two weeks, water levels will continue to drop along the Mississippi River, nearing historic lows," Tapley adds.

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