(Adds Coast Guard relaxing barge draft guidelines)
By Karl Plume
Jan 10 A storm moving up the Mississippi River
valley will help replenish the river, low in parts from drought,
and ease concerns that shipping could be halted along a shallow
stretch from St. Louis to Cairo, Illinois.
Shipping groups had warned as recently as last week of an
effective closure of the river along that busy stretch, through
which billions of dollars of grain, coal, fertilizer and other
commodities flow every year.
Rain and the brisk pace of efforts to remove underwater rock
could help the Army Corps of Engineers keep barge traffic
flowing through that section of the Mississippi until at least
mid-February when the river's water level rises because of
The U.S. Coast Guard on Thursday relaxed their previously
rigid draft restrictions for vessels transiting the area in
response to the improved river forecast.
Boats had been required to have a draft of, at most, nine
feet between the water's surface and the lowest point of the
vessel. Now, while still recommending nine-foot drafts, the
Coast Guard will allow deeper-draft boats if conditions allow.
Most barge tow boats require a draft of at least nine feet.
"The forecasts are looking good," said Lt. Colin Fogarty,
public affairs officer for the Coast Guard's upper Mississippi
River sector that covers the Cairo area and northward.
Shippers are still watching river gauges along the waterway
to make sure they can transit low water areas.
"It doesn't look like we're going to hit those two
thresholds of a minus-six feet in St. Louis and plus-two feet in
Thebes," Fogarty said on Thursday, referring to low river gauge
readings at the two locations that would prompt the Coast Guard
to restrict vessel drafts to less than nine feet.
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 steadily changes with the current. They aid
navigation as a shorter term reference point.
The river gauge at St. Louis was expected to rise from -2.8
feet on Thursday to -1 foot by Sunday, according to the National
At Thebes, Illinois, where the Army Corps has been removing
rock pinnacles since mid-December, the gauge was at 3.8 feet on
Thursday and expected to rise to 8.2 feet by Tuesday.
Rock clearing at Thebes and another location near Grand
Tower, Illinois, was expected to be completed by the end of
January, allowing for two additional feet of draft.
The prioritized removal of the most threatening pinnacles at
Thebes is expected to be completed later this week, a Corps
spokesman said late on Wednesday.
"Basically, the crisis is over. No, we can't run the 12-foot
drafts that we would like to run out of St. Louis with 14-foot
barges, but we'll have enough water that barges can continue to
move," a grain barge trader said.
(Reporting by Karl Plume in Chicago; Editing by Toni Reinhold)