THE WORST drought in decades continues to leave much of the country parched, and now it threatens to create another crisis by bringing commercial navigation on the Mississippi River to a halt.
Experts have told the Associated Press that the river is expected to reach the point in the next week where it will be too shallow to carry barge traffic along a 180-mile stretch between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill. While the drought is beyond anyone's control, there is a man-made solution for the rapidly falling water levels.
U.S. senators from states along the river -- including those from Illinois, Missouri and Iowa -- have joined more than 70 other members of Congress, governors, trade groups and other national organizations in asking the Obama administration to take immediate action to avert an economic crisis. They seek an emergency directive to keep vital shipping lanes open by increasing the flow of water from an upper Missouri River dam and expediting removal of rock formations in the middle Mississippi River that impede barge traffic during periods of shallow water.
So far their efforts have led to a pledge by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to move up removal of the rock pinnacles that obstruct low-water river traffic near Thebes, in extreme southern Illinois.
There has been no such progress in getting the corps to increase water releases from Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota.
Until nine days ago the dam was releasing enough water into the Missouri River to sustain shipping depths on the Mississippi River. That flow was cut due to policy decisions by the Army Corps of Engineers Northwestern Division.
As the Associated Press reported, the corps says the reduction is necessary because low water in the upper Missouri River basin is affecting recreation, exposing Native American artifacts that are normally covered by water, and may eventually impact hydropower. They say they are bound by the Missouri River Master Manual to act in the best interest of the Missouri River, and what happens on the Mississippi is incidental.
Incidental? The Mississippi River is the country's main inland waterway. Barges ship 20 percent of the country's coal and more than 60 percent of its grain exports, along with other commodities.
Reservoirs along the Missouri River were built specifically to control water flows. Federal dollars created the structures in order to prevent floods in wet years and prevent very low water levels in dry years. Recreation was a side benefit for the upriver communities, not the primary goal.
Republican Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt said the corps needs to better manage "friction" between the interests of the upper basin of the Missouri River and the lower Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri warned that if something isn't done and the river is shut down starting this month and through January because of low water, the economic impact could reach into the billions of dollars.
According to the Associated Press, Army Assistant Secretary Jo-Ellen Darcy told Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and some of his colleagues last week that the corps would consider reducing the amount of water being held back from the Mississippi. That would be a positive first step.
However, a compromise must be reached -- and reached soon -- that addresses the issues of those on the upper Missouri River and still preserves the critical shipping interests along the Mississippi River.