Illinois Farm Bureau targets maintaining Mississippi River navigation

Posted: Dec. 4, 2012 2:42 pm Updated: Dec. 25, 2012 3:15 pm

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

CHICAGO -- Delegates to the Illinois Farm Bureau annual meeting are sending a message to President Barack Obama and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about the Mississippi River.

With a "sense of the delegate" resolution, the organization asked the president and the corps to act as quickly as possible to maintain river levels to maintain navigation. Pike County Farm Bureau President David Gay introduced the resolution adopted unanimously during Monday's meeting in Chicago.

Gay said the idea for the resolution came from a member who thought the Illinois Farm Bureau should weigh in on the debate about the low water levels and how that affects barge traffic.

"That's a crucial issue for farmers, especially in our area. Most of our grain goes down the river on a barge on the Mississippi or Illinois, and also other commodities like fertilizer are shipped up the river," Gay said. "If the river is shut down this winter because of low water, it could threaten the availability of fertilizer to put on fields next spring."

Gay said maintaining barge traffic is important for people on and off the farm.

"Road salt is barged up river. Things like fuel, lumber, other materials do come up the river that affect the larger economy beyond agriculture," he said. "That's another reason why we're hopeful this will happen. It does impact the Midwestern economy, and given the current economic situation, everyone wants to avoid those hiccups as much as possible."

Illinois Farm Bureau President Philip Nelson said Monday that he's been in touch with Illinois and federal leaders to discuss the importance of keeping the river open to barge traffic this winter. The river gauge at St. Louis on Monday was at minus 2.1 feet, roughly three feet above the level considered unsafe for most barge traffic, according to the Illinois Farm Bureau.

Nelson said it's imperative that rock obstacles in the navigation channel near Thebes be cleared so grain and fertilizer shipments can continue.

"There's an area with rock pinnacles, natural rock formations in the riverbed. When the water is this low, those pinnacles are close enough to the surface to threaten the barges. The Corps can go to work blasting and removing some of that rock," Gay said. "The other thing they can do is release water from a reservoir on the upper Missouri River to maintain adequate flow."

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.

"The Schuyler County Farm Bureau worked with Sen. (John) Sullivan to put together very similar language which did pass in the state Senate. (Rep.) Jil Tracy will be working to get that through the House as well," Gay said. "Gov. (Pat) Quinn has spoken on it. Gov. (Jay) Nixon has spoken on it. We are adding our voice to the other to bring attention to it. Hopefully that can make it happen."

The efforts, to date, have led to a pledge by the Corps to move up removal of the rock formations near Thebes, but there has been no progress in getting the Corps to increase water releases from Gavins Point Dam in Yankton, S.D.

Gay hopes the Illinois Farm Bureau's involvement will put even more attention on the issue.

Such resolutions are not common for the Illinois Farm Bureau, but they allow the delegates to speak as a group on a particular issue.

"We do that from time to time, not every year, but this year we passed two," Gay said. "The other one was regarding the ‘fiscal cliff' debate and taxation. Farm Bureau is very interested in things like estate tax and capital gains taxes which are at issue right now with the whole tax debate."