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Washington - Shippers and lawmakers are pressuring President Obama to declare a federal emergency along the Mississippi River, citing potential "catastrophic consequences" in the Midwest if barge traffic is curtailed by low water on the nation's busiest waterway.
Lawmakers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute urged Obama to tell the Army Corps of Engineers to hasten the planned removal of submerged rocks near Cairo, Ill., that may impede barge traffic at low water levels. The Corps also should stop its seasonal restriction on the flow of Missouri River water into the Mississippi, which it began last week, the groups said.
"We still got a lot of stuff to move down that Mississippi before winter totally sets in," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said in an interview. "They can release more water, sure they can."
Mississippi River barge traffic is slowing as the worst drought in five decades combines with a seasonal dry period to push water levels to a near-record low, prompting shippers including Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. to seek alternatives. Computer models suggest that without more rain, navigating the Mississippi will start to be affected Dec. 11 and the river will reach a record low Dec. 22, said Corps spokesman Bob Anderson, based in Vicksburg, Miss.
Barges on the Mississippi handle about 60 percent of the nation's grain exports entering the Gulf of Mexico through New Orleans, as well as 22 percent of its petroleum and 20 percent of its coal. About $7 billion worth of commodities usually travel on the Mississippi in December and January, including $2.3 billion of agricultural products and $1.8 billion of chemical goods, according to the American Waterways Operators and Waterways Council Inc.
An emergency declaration would help by directing the Corps to release more water into the Mississippi and remove rock formations south of St. Louis without following federal contracting practices that may delay action, Harkin said.
"We've been operating with the drought in mind all year," said Michael Petersen, spokesman for the Corps in St. Louis, who said there are no plans to change procedures. The river system "is multipurpose. It's people's water supplies, hydropower. We're dealing with the hand we've been dealt, and we've prepared as best we can."
Mississippi water levels may drop to a historic low next month, in part because of the Corps of Engineers. Last week it started reducing outflows from the Missouri River, which joins the Mississippi at St. Louis, as part of an annual operating plan to ensure regions further north have adequate water. To mitigate its reduction of Missouri River flow, which started Nov. 23, the Corps started releasing water from Minnesota and Iowa from the upper Mississippi on Nov. 20.
Fifteen U.S. senators, 62 members of the House and three governors have written the Corps asking it to delay water-reducing actions and remove rocks that impede traffic. The Mississippi "is vital to commerce for agriculture and many other goods," the lawmakers, including Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, that chamber's second-ranking Democrat, wrote in the request.
"Substantial curtailment of navigation will effectively sever the country's inland waterway superhighway, imperil the shipment of critical cargo for domestic consumption and for export, threaten manufacturing industries and power generation and risk thousands of related jobs in the Midwest," the groups said in a letter yesterday.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., whose state relies on the Missouri River for irrigation, questioned whether that river's flow needs to be increased to help more-southern regions.
"We've heard this every year for as long as I've been here," Conrad said. "What one finds if you pierce the veil is the freight movements on the river have never reached the levels predicted."
The Army Corps is following the instructions of Congress that directed management of the Missouri River, Petersen said. Petersen declined to speculate on what effect the emergency declaration would have on the pace of destroying rock impediments, while noting that the work would still take time to find a contractor and complete.
In Illinois, so-called rock pinnacles in the river near Thebes and Grand Tower, which aren't a hazard when levels are high, make the water near Cairo unnavigable as shallower currents draw ships into contact with them.
The current plan is being followed "with long-term considerations in mind," he said in a telephone interview. "We need to think about snow melt and considerations into next year. We have to manage the water for the long term."
The worst U.S. drought since 1956, which dried farmland from Ohio to Nebraska, will last at least through February in most areas, according to the U.S. Climate Prediction Center in College Park, Md.
Normal to below normal precipitation is forecast for most of the Plains through Dec. 7, according to the center.