The drought fight

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Flood of 2011 taught us that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates a complicated system. The decision to detonate the Birds Point Levee -- destroying many homes, 130,000 acres of crop land and the local economy in many places -- came at a steep price to a few for the benefit of the many.

Water rushed in, filled the lowlands and eased levee pressure upstream. The entire river system benefited, according to corps officials.

In 2012 we're facing the opposite problem, where a drought threatens to shut down barge traffic on the Mississippi River. And much like the Birds Point decision, a choice must be made by our government, one that pits two areas along the river against each other.

There are six primary dams on the upper Missouri River, the southernmost being Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota. Flow from Gavins Point is regulated by the corps, and the dams are used to keep the Missouri River navigable from April through November. During those months, more water is released from the dams. During the other months, the reservoirs are restored.

The low river level is making national headlines. Corps officials have said that some portions of the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., will be so low river traffic will be forced to shut down completely. There's a particular place near Thebes, Ill., where underwater rock formations cause problems.

Dan Overbey, the executive director of the SEMO Port Authority [in a recent interview with the Scott County Signal], explained it is not too uncommon for the Mississippi River to be shut down for periods of time during flooding and ice. Those incidents usually are short-lived, he said, and major companies that do shipping on the river can cope with those interruptions. Overbey's concern is that a longer-term shutdown of the river because of low-water conditions will have major economic ramifications.

"A lengthy shutdown forces companies to consider other options," Overbey said. "The advantage to shipping on the river is that its cost is much lower, in normal conditions, than trucking, which is at least 12 times as costly, or by rail, which is three to four times as costly. In reality, companies that use the river cannot afford to truck to or from the Gulf Coast. For many companies, all they can do is go into a temporary shutdown and only make emergency shipments by rail or truck. Some grain elevators have already put part of their harvest in covered and ventilated piles beside their full elevators. This is often done to wait for lower barge rates in the winter, but this year they could be waiting until spring."

Large tows, during normal river conditions, can contain nearly $20 million worth of corn or $40 million in soybeans.

Meanwhile, the corps has reduced the flow from Gavins Point, a routine move aimed at preserving the long-term health of the system, particularly the Missouri River. The Mississippi's level is dropping day by day, and is expected to shut down traffic later this month. Apparently, only a directive from the president could force the corps' hand.

Media reports have stated that the upper Missouri River basin would be affected in the way of recreation (boating and fishing), hydropower and the uncovering of Native American artifacts if water levels were to become too low. In reality, it's a much more complicated story.

The drought-reserve system is designed to sustain a 12-year drought. And drought patterns tend to come in multiple-year waves in the upper Great Plains, according to a corps spokeswoman. The drought of 2012 was more severe than most. In one year, 20 percent of the system's drought reserves have been used. Given long-range forecasts for more dry weather and the normal pattern of multiyear droughts, it's clear the decision to release more water is a difficult one, and not one that should be taken lightly.

Meanwhile, several municipal water systems (some of which already have seen shortages), and a handful of farmer irrigation systems, draw water from the reserves up north. Like those in Mississippi County, Mo., a decision to release more water would have consequences to people who live near the river.

In Washington D.C., scores of U.S. lawmakers -- in addition to governors of several states -- have been pressuring the executive branch to release more water. It's been a bipartisan push.

So far, few answers have come.

A New York Times article published last week quoted Martin Hettel, a senior manager at the American Electric Power River Operations -- a barge company in St. Louis -- saying, "the only person that's going to be able to help us is the person who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."

It would be prudent for the administration to begin giving answers soon.

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