No water release from Mark Twain Lake planned by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Barges on the Mississippi River already are carrying lighter and more frequent loads, and some operators say they'll halt shipping if they face more restrictions from reduced water levels. (H-W File Photo)
Posted: Dec. 24, 2012 7:28 am Updated: Jan. 14, 2013 9:16 am

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials are not expected to use Mark Twain Lake as a water release site to aid the drought-plagued Mississippi River.

The 18,000-acre lake, which spreads across parts of both Ralls and Monroe counties in Northeast Missouri, is also at a dangerously low level.

Any type of water release from the lake would likely have minimal effect on the river problem, according to corps officials, because the gravest areas of concern are much farther to the south. In addition, further reduction of the lake could have an adverse effect on the hydroelectric power produced at nearby Clarence Cannon Dam. Water systems and fish and wildlife populations could also be negatively affected.

"We're evaluating all possibilities at all reservoirs up and down the Mississippi, and that includes Mark Twain Lake," said Russell Errett, a hydraulic engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' St. Louis-based Water Control Office. "But at this time, any water release from Mark Twain Lake is not likely."

Sandra Spence, the corps' operations manager at Mark Twain Lake, said the level of the lake has remained steady in recent weeks at between 600 and 601 feet. The all-time low is 595.85 feet in November 1997.

Errett said any level below 601 feet at Mark Twain Lake could begin to pose a problem regarding the hydroelectric power, plus causing environmental-related concerns.

The Mississippi is at its severest stages near and below the St. Louis area -- the "Middle Miss" region according to the corps -- and threatening to further disrupt barge traffic that could leverage a multibillion-dollar hit on the U.S. economy. The Quincy area is categorized as the "Upper Miss" region.

Mississippi River water levels are expected to keep dropping over the next several weeks, according to the National Weather Service. Months of drought have left water levels up to 20 feet below normal along a 180-mile stretch of the river from St. Louis to Cairo, Ill.

This drought-related problem with the Mississippi is probably one of the three worst in the last 50 years, according to Errett.

"Multiyear droughts like this usually happen about every 10 to 15 years," he said.

Errett said water has been released from some reservoirs in southern Illinois to help with the situation in the immediate St. Louis region and areas south.

"In St. Louis, the river depends solely on flow," Errett said. "Up in the (Quincy area) there are locks and dams that help control the river."

The Associated Press reports that barges on the Mississippi already are carrying lighter and more frequent loads, and some operators say they'll halt shipping if they face more restrictions from reduced water levels.

The movement of many agricultural products, coal, petroleum and other goods rely on river for transport.

The National Weather Service has said that, without rain, the water levels on the Mississippi will probably reach historic lows this month.

"All the ingredients for us getting to an all-time record low are certainly in place," said Mark Fuchs, a hydrologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in St. Louis. "I would be very surprised if we didn't set a record this winter."

Numerous reports indicate shipping companies are hauling 15 barges at a time instead of a typical string of 25, because the bigger runs are too big for current operating conditions. That is also making for more traffic, with more delays and backups. Stretches of the river are now reduced to one-way traffic.

Another problem from a long cold spell could also service and make navigation even more difficult: shallow, slow-moving water is more likely to get clogged up with ice.

The Coast Guard has said it does not expect to close the river. But Tom Allegretti, president and CEO of American Waterways Operators trade group, said any additional restrictions on barges will leave the river "as good as closed."

"This is still very much a crisis situation," said the group's Ann McCulloch.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.