UPDATE 2-Mississippi River has enough water to stay open-Senator

Mon Jan 7, 2013 5:07pm EST

Related Topics

* Senator Durbin tours river for at critical spot
    * Senator says Army Corps gave "very positive" briefing
    * Low water threatens nearly $3 billion in January shipments
    * Army Corps dredging, removing rock to keep channel open

 (Adds comments from congressman, barge company)
    By Tom Polansek
    Jan 7 (Reuters) - The drought-drained Mississippi River has
enough water for barges to maintain shipments of billions of
dollars worth of commodities, and the White House will consider
"any option" to keep it open for commerce, U.S. Sen Dick Durbin
said on Monday.
    Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said the outlook
for the nation's busiest waterway looked positive after he
toured a shallow stretch for nearly an hour by boat.
    Shippers have been worried for months that the river will
close due to historically low water levels following the worst
drought in more than half a century. Industry groups, such as
The Waterways Council and American Waterways Operators, predict
an effective halt to commerce later this month.
    Durbin and other officials took to the water for a firsthand
look near Thebes, Illinois, where workers have been removing
river-bottom rocks to aid transportation after the drought
drained the Mississippi River and the rivers that feed into it.
    "They are making good progress in clearing that section of
the river, which presents the biggest challenge," Durbin said in
a phone interview. "The pool of water is sufficient to move all
of the barge traffic that they need."
    Should the river be shut to traffic, more than 8,000 jobs
would be affected, worth $54 million in wages and benefits,
according to the shipping groups. It would halt the movement of
7.2 million tons of commodities worth $2.8 billion, they said.
    The threat has attracted attention from the highest levels,
and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the second time in a
month briefed Durbin in Illinois on the potential for a river
shutdown. Durbin, a Democrat from the state, receives regular
updates on the situation via telephone and in Washington, D.C.,
a spokeswoman said.
    The Corps gave "a very positive briefing," he said, noting
that melting ice and snow from recent storms should help feed
the river, which is used to transport grains from the Midwest
farm belt to the U.S. Gulf Coast for exports, and shipping
imports to various parts of the Untied States. 
    Durbin said the White House has said "any option is on the
table" to keep the river open to commerce if water levels
continue to drop.
    Shipping groups have called on U.S. President Barack Obama
to release water from reservoirs into the Missouri River to
boost water levels on the Mississippi River. The Missouri River
feeds into the larger river near St. Louis    
    "So far we haven't had to press that case," Durbin said
about the shippers' request. "If it reaches an emergency
situation, everything will be considered."
    
    THREATENING ROCK    
    The Army Corps said last week that navigation would
continue. A spokesman could not immediately be reached on
Monday.
    The Corps is removing the most threatening rock pinnacles
near the Illinois towns of Grand Tower and Thebes, planning to
deepen the shipping channel by about two feet by mid-January,
just before the river is forecast to hit critically low levels.
    AEP River Operations, a barge company, has started moving
more of its vessels north on the river toward Thebes because the
forecast for two more feet of depth has improved prospects for
free-flowing traffic, said Martin Hettel, senior manager of bulk
sales for the company. 
    Formerly the company had largely kept vessels south of
Thebes due to concerns the river may effectively shut to
commerce. 
    "It looks like we're out of the woods," said U.S. Rep Bill
Enyart, D-Ill., who toured the river with Durbin.
    The Corps has also been dredging various soft-bottom
sections of the river nearly round-the-clock for six months to
maintain a deep enough shipping channel. The majority of
commercial vessels need a depth, or draft, of at least nine feet
so shippers are closely monitoring river gauges and forecasts.
    Still, shippers are "looking for that certainty"  that the
river will stay open beyond the end of the month, said Ann
McCulloch, director of public affairs and communications for the
American Waterways Operators.
    The Mississippi River gauge at Thebes rose to 4 feet on
Monday from 3.9 feet on Friday. It was forecast to slip to 2.4
feet by next week, the lowest level there since 1988 and the
second lowest on record.
    Gauge readings do not reflect the actual depth of the river
at a certain location because the gauges are fixed and the
river's bottom is steadily changing with the current. They aid
navigation as a shorter term reference point.
    The Army Corps has said once the Thebes gauge reads two
feet, boats with a nine-foot draft, or distance between the
water's surface and the lowest point of the vessel, would be at
risk of hitting rock pinnacles there.
    Despite the positive outlook for the river, Durbin said
after his tour that it was hard to believe how far water levels
have fallen. 
    "You can see things on the river banks of the Mississippi
that haven't been seen for decades - old piers and things that
have been long gone," he said.

 (Reporting By Tom Polansek; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer and
Sofina Mirza-Reid)
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