* Low water may halt St. Louis-to-Cairo, Illinois traffic
* River-bottom rock at Thebes, Grand Tower a threat to boats
* Industry groups see effective halt to shipping Jan. 5-15
* Army Corps optimistic that navigation will be sustained
(Adds Army Corps of Engineers outlook, quote, updates Thebes
river gauge reading)
By Karl Plume
Jan 2 The drought-drained Mississippi River will
rise slightly later this week between St. Louis and Cairo,
Illinois, but later continue its decline toward historic lows,
according to a National Weather Service forecast.
Low water, due to the worst U.S. drought since 1956, has
already impeded the flow of billions of dollars worth of grain,
coal, fertilizer and other commodities between the central
United States and shipping terminals at the Gulf of Mexico.
A further drop in river levels could halt commercial
shipping traffic entirely by this weekend, the American
Waterways Operators and the Waterways Council Inc said in a
statement on Wednesday.
Last week, the council said the river along the Cairo-St.
Louis stretch would be too low for navigation by Jan. 7 but on
Wednesday it said shipping may come to a halt between Jan. 5 and
A shutdown could affect more than 8,000 jobs, cost $54
million in wages and benefits, and halt the movement of 7.2
million tons of commodities valued at $2.8 billion, the two
industry groups said.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which is spearheading a project
to remove river-bottom rock that could impede shipping if the
river becomes too shallow, remains optimistic that the
nine-foot-deep channel, which most commercial vessels need, can
Forecasts for warmer weather, which would limit
river-choking ice from forming, and the potential for rain next
week bolstered that outlook.
The Corps is removing the most threatening rock pinnacles
near the Illinois towns of Grand Tower and Thebes first, hoping
to deepen the shipping channel by about two feet by mid-January,
just before the river was forecast to hit critically low levels.
"The Corps rock removal contractors are making excellent
progress in removing the rock obstructions from the primary area
of concern," said Major General John Peabody, the Corps'
Mississippi Valley Division Commander.
"We believe we will deepen the channel ahead of the
worst-case river stage scenario, and I remain confident that
navigation will continue," he said.
The Corps has also been dredging various soft-bottom
sections of the river nearly round-the-clock for months to
maintain a deep enough shipping channel. The vast majority of
commercial vessels need a depth of at least nine feet so
shippers are closely monitoring river gauges and forecasts.
The Mississippi River gauge at Thebes fell from a reading of
4.45 feet late last week to four feet late on Wednesday. It was
forecast to rise to 4.2 feet on Friday morning before slipping
to 3.2 feet by next Wednesday, the lowest level at Thebes 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. But they
do aid navigation as a shorter term reference point.
The Army Corps has said once the Thebes gauge reads 2 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.
"We lose 9 feet of depth for the navigation at about 2 feet
on the Thebes gauge," said Army Corps spokesman Mike Petersen.
"That's when those rocks become an issue."
(Reporting by Karl Plume in Chicago; Editing by Steve Orlofsky
and Bob Burgdorfer)