* Coast Guard says will likely not close Mississippi River
* Low water expected to trigger restrictions
* Reduced drafts, smaller tow sizes among likely curbs
* River depth below 9 feet would effectively halt shipping
(Adds details on Missouri River drought measures, rising grain
By Karl Plume
Nov 16 Commercial shipping traffic on a stretch
of the Mississippi River will be restricted at some point in the
coming weeks due to low water, possibly halting the flow of
billions of dollars of goods such as grain and coal, industry
and government officials said Friday.
An official closure is unlikely, but the river could become
too shallow next month for most commercial vessels to transit a
busy section from St. Louis to Cairo, Illinois.
Water levels on that stretch are forecast to drop to nine
feet or less by early December as drought conservation measures
will reduce the flow of water from the Missouri River and its
reservoir system into the Mississippi.
"I don't anticipate a scenario right now where I close the
river," said Captain Byron Black, commander for Coast Guard's
Upper Mississippi River sector.
The river would only be closed if an incident, such as a
fatal accident or a barge sinking, occurred, he said.
"I fully expect, as we have declining water conditions, that
there will be times that, without rain, we're going to need to
work with our industry partners to figure out what prudent
measures we will take to be able to keep commerce flowing
safely," Black said.
Those measures could include restrictions on tow sizes or
reduced drafts; limiting navigation to one-way; or requiring
barge tow boats to use an assist boat as well.
Illinois governor Pat Quinn urged the federal government to
take "every possible measure" to maintain the flow of water on
the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to prevent expected
restrictions or disruptions to commercial shipping traffic.
Barges can be "light loaded" to reduce their drafts, but
most of the tow boats that push the barges up and down the river
are unable to operate at depths shallower than nine feet,
industry sources said.
"Slowing down or even severing the country's inland waterway
superhighway would imperil the shipment of critical cargo for
export, significantly delay products for domestic use, threaten
manufacturing production and power generation, and negatively
impact jobs up and down the river," said Craig Philip, Chief
Executive Officer, Ingram Barge Company in. Nashville.
A halt to shipping on the Mississippi in December and
January could delay shipments of goods valued at more than $7
billion, impacting exports, manufacturing, power generation and
related jobs, according to shipping industry groups.
Some 60 percent of U.S. grain exports are shipped to Gulf
Coast export terminals in barges via the Mississippi River and
Grain export prices soared to multimonth highs this week on
the threat of a shipping disruption.
Other products including coal, fertilizer, steel and
de-icing road salt are also transported on the inland waterway
DECLINING WATER LEVELS
There are no shipping restrictions currently in place
between St. Louis and Cairo, Illinois but water levels are
expected to decline next month as water released from the
Missouri's upriver dams is reduced, stemming the flow into the
Water in the Missouri River's six multi-purpose reservoirs
was below normal amid the worst U.S. drought in 56 years,
prompting the Corps to take the conservation measures.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it would be able to
maintain a nine-foot deep channel on the Mississippi until the
river's St. Louis gauge reaches -5 feet, at which point
river-bottom rock pinnacles downriver from the gauge pose a risk
to navigation for most commercial vessels.
River gauges are not absolute measures of a river's
constantly changing depth, but instead are used to monitor river
levels over time. A negative gauge reading does not mean the
river has run dry.
The St. Louis gauge stood at 0.5 feet on Friday but was
forecast to recede to -1.3 feet by next Friday, more than 31
feet below flood stage. Reduced flows from the Missouri, which
the Army Corps said could lower water levels from St. Louis to
Cairo by several feet, were expected to begin impacting the
Mississippi by early December.
The Army Corps' St. Louis district is working on a contract
to remove the rock and work could begin around February, said
spokesman Michael Petersen.
In the meantime, the Army Corps has created electronic
navigation charts to help mariners transit the trouble spots.
Removal of the rock pinnacles would allow vessels to
continue operating with nine-foot drafts until the St. Louis
river gauge reaches -7 feet, Petersen said.
(Reporting by Karl Plume in Chicago; Editing by Gerald E.
McCormick, Leslie Gevirtz and Andrew Hay)