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Editorial: Low water good and bad for river watchers

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

With the Mississippi River, as is always the case with Mother Nature, we have no choice but to take the bad with the good. Sometimes the river provides us with an ample helping of both. That has been just the case over the past few weeks, as the flow of the river plummeted to its lowest levels in 15 years.

For Perry County, the low water level turned into a tourist opportunity. The low water meant people could walk out to Tower Rock -- normally surrounded by rapidly flowing water -- for the first time in years.

The spectacular limestone rock bulges up 90 feet out of the middle of the river and sits about three miles east of Altenburg, a 45-minute drive from Cape Girardeau. Curious sightseers flocked to take a look at the impressive natural display.

One person estimated that a thousand people showed up, and the county had to haul in more gravel for the access road after a busy time, at a cost they were happy to pay. It was a small windfall for Perry County's economy as well as a unique opportunity for people who appreciate history and nature.

But we must forgive the barge industry if it has a more jaded view of the river situation. The industry has lost $1 million to $2 million a day because the low river levels mean the barges must reduce their loads along shallow stretches of the river. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sets limits on tonnage and also restrictions on how many barges can be attached to each tow.

Members of the shipping industry called it a "dire situation" and asked the corps to release water into the Missouri River to alleviate the Mississippi's low water problems. The corps blamed a dry fall and below-normal temperatures in the upper river basin for the low water, which had even caused barge traffic near Cape Girardeau to be shut down for a time.

Most barge shippers on the Mississippi River have lost 50 percent of their capacity because of low water levels. That's leading to higher river shipping costs for items like salt, fertilizer, grain, building supplies and petroleum products.

That will also have a trickle-down effect. Some suggest that garden shops may have a hard time receiving supplies of mulch or fertilizer if the river remains low for another month. Contractors could pay more for rock and asphalt for street repairs this summer.

Charlie Kruse, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, even worries that farmers will receive less for their crops if water levels cause shutdowns in barge traffic and force buyers to use more expensive forms of transportation.

The accessibility of Tower Rock has been nice. But with the seriousness of the barge industry's problems, it's probably time we all started praying for rain.


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