Mississippi River commerce still flowing despite low water south of St. Louis

A worker for McNay Truck Line uses an excavator to unload a barge full of fertilizer Wednesday morning along the riverfront at Quincy's Municipal Barge Dock. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)
Posted: Jan. 12, 2013 8:50 pm Updated: Jan. 27, 2013 1:15 am

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

Companies that rely on the inland waterway system are keeping an eye on what's happening on the Mississippi River near the southern tip of Illinois.

That's where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been removing a series of submerged rocks that could pose a threat to navigation if the river's exceptionally low water level continues to drop even further.

"We've been watching that pretty closely," said Quincy engineer Mike Klingner, vice president of the Upper Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri Rivers Association.

Klingner said the corps' efforts near Thebes -- where it's been using explosives since December to remove a treacherous section of rocks known as "pinnacles" -- is being cheered by his association and other river-related groups. This long-awaited action could help free up a bottleneck taking place along the nation's largest river system, a major import/export gateway to the Gulf of Mexico.

"The corps had started to do that project three times and never fully completed removing the pinnacles," Klingner said. "But now it's been so serious this year that the corps finally acted."

Low water from an ongoing drought has been plaguing river navigation since early last year in the middle and lower reaches of the Mississippi. Last summer the river dropped so low near Memphis that barges ran aground and their operators were forced to lighten loads.

On the upper Mississippi north of St. Louis, meanwhile, barge traffic has been running on its routine schedule because the river's depth there is controlled by a series of locks and dams. These structures create a stair-step series of pools that provide a continuous navigation channel at least 9 feet deep in accordance with federal rules. The pools are being maintained even as drought conditions caused the river to dip to uncommonly low levels in the waterway's southern reaches.

"We're not having any major problems in our immediate pools because we have the locks and dams," Klingner said. "But when you get south of St. Louis, you basically have a free-flowing river. So when you get into some of these low areas -- particularly where the corps can't dredge sand because you have rock -- it really provides restrictions."

Even as rock-removal work continues at Thebes, "they've basically had to go to single lane traffic because it's so narrow through there with this low water," Klingner said.

A bottleneck like that could potentially impact shippers up and down the river system because of delays, reduced loads and higher costs.

UMIMRA sent a letter to federal officials last year urging support for removing the pinnacles. The group also asked federal officials "to evaluate better management of the reservoirs for flood control and navigational purposes," Klingner said.

He was referring to a controversial decision to maintain reservoir levels in the upper reaches of the Missouri River rather than release some of the stored water to provide better flows for navigation downstream. The Missouri River empties into the Mississippi in the St. Louis area.

This decision was controversial, Klingner said, because the decision to build the reservoirs years ago was justified on the basis that the reservoirs could be used to help with flood control and navigation.

But now "the interest in the upper west is to have it more for recreational purposes," Klingner said. "Now that they have the reservoirs, they like them and they like to keep the water up there."

UMIMRA members will hear an update on the river navigation situation at the group's annual meeting Feb. 8 in Peoria.

The Quincy-based Great River Economic Development Foundationn also has publicly supported efforts to have the corps dig out the pinnacles near Thebes.

"We also encourage them to find more water someplace" to maintain flows in the middle and lower Mississippi, said Phil Conover, GREDF's interim president.

Conover said the low-water situation is a concern to all businesses in the region that rely on the Mississippi as a conduit for bringing in or shipping out essential products.

"It's a situation where, on one hand, you just pray for rain. But in the meantime, (the low water to the south) can have a potentially damaging economic impact on many of our businesses that bring stuff upriver."

Conover said numerous businesses in the 35-county territory served by GREDF in West-Central Illinois, Northeast Missouri and Southeast Iowa are accustomed to using the river as an efficient way to send and receive products. He said any potential barrier to river commerce is a concern.

"The export/import business among our manufacturers has increased over the years. It's going to increase much more, so we need to figure this out," he said.

If the low-water situation worsens and area companies are unable to use the Mississippi River for commerce, companies would be forced to use less-efficient trains and trucks to move products in and out.

"The cost numbers on that are huge," Conover said. "The quantity that can be shipped on a barge makes it very appealing."

Pete Holtschlag, who manages Quincy's municipal barge dock, said Quincy is fortunate to be located along a major river. He said many local companies take advantage of the river as a transportation route.

"The river is really a pretty economical way of shipping things," he said.

The municipal barge dock is primarily used by local companies to bring in large quantities of bulk materials to use in their businesses. This might include such things as fertilizer, chemicals, lime, coal and various trace elements used in making animal feed.

The city gets 60 cents for each ton of product that gets unloaded. For instance, if a company uses the dock to unload 1,500 tons of coal, the city's take would be $450. This not only benefits the city by producing a stream of revenue, but it also helps companies that provide jobs and pay taxes, which contributes to a healthy local economy.

"It's a situation where everybody wins," Holtschlag said.

Luckily, he added, the low-water situation south of St. Louis has not adversely affected barge shipments arriving in the Quincy pool.

"There's no problem between the locks," Holtschlag said. "We've been able to get barges in and unloaded pretty good."

Jim McDaniel, lockmaster at Lock and Dam 21 in Quincy, said he hasn't noticed any significant impact in barge commerce in this part of the Mississippi River as a result of the low-water situation south of St. Louis.

"The river is still open," he said. "It hasn't reached the point where they would shut down the river."

He said "everything is normal" in this section of the river.

Ordinarily, barges in wintertime tend not to travel beyond Pool 21 at Quincy or Pool 20 at Canton, Mo., because the river often freezes in pools further to the north. But this year it's a different story. With mild conditions at hand, McDaniel said, a towboat recently ventured up into Pool 19, north of Keokuk, Iowa, which is uncommon for January.

"That pool is so big and wide it usually freezes over fairly quickly because there's not enough ice flow there to keep the ice broken up," McDaniel said.