Routing the river

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Near Cape Rock prior to 1992, barge tows on the Mississippi River followed a channel that meandered for years at a time from one side of the river to the other. Constricted and shallow when the river was low, the channel had to be dredged repeatedly.

That year the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built eight underwater weirs -- dams -- in the Mississippi River near Cape Rock to move the deep-water channel permanently toward the Illinois shore. The corps wanted to reduce the need for dredging and make passage around Cape Rock safer for barge tows.

The project, considered innovative at the time, was designed to slow the current, allowing sand and sediment to drop to the river bottom and force the underwater current closer to the Illinois side.

The Missouri side became the "depositional area."

In the intervening years, sandbars have built up on the Missouri side of the river. That does not create a problem for barge traffic, but during low water the sandbars render almost unusable the boat ramp at the newly renovated Red Star Public Fishing Access Point in Cape Girardeau. Only the smallest boats can use the ramp when the water is only 2 feet deep.

The Missouri Department of Conservation, which controls the dock, has asked the corps for a solution to the problem.

If possible, U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson has promised, the river bottom near the boat ramp will be dredged. But that $100,000 solution would be temporary.

The situation frustrates boaters and concerns the Cape Girardeau Fire Department.

Because of the sandbars, firefighters currently can only launch small, inflatable rescue craft from Red Star. To use its larger craft the department would have to launch much farther away at Thebes, Ill., losing many minutes in an emergency.

Joe Kellett, the corps' deputy district engineer, has proposed testing a solution that would divert the channel back toward the Missouri side. Any such project would take two years to complete and could cost more than $700,000.

The corrective measures could involve moving or removing weirs or some of the 296,000 tons of rock the corps deposited in the river originally.

In the end, however, this great river does what it wants.

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