(Fred Lynch) [Order this photo]
Starved by drought, the water level has slowly been approaching the three-foot mark on the gauge at Thebes, Ill., below which point industry that relies on the river would be paralyzed. Rock pinnacles in the water that the corps is removing near Thebes make the shallows especially treacherous.
"They can really play havoc with towboats and barges," said Dan Overbey, executive director of the Southeast Missouri Regional Port Authority.
Overbey said one solution operators can consider is lightening loads so barges don't sit as deep in the water. However, towboats that barges use require a channel about nine feet deep.
"Even if you can get the barges light-loaded to eight feet, you still need the depth," Overbey said.
Trade officials have said that if drafts, the portion of boats that are submerged, are restricted to eight feet or lower, many operators will stop shipping. They have called for the president to require the corps to increase the flow of water from an upper Missouri River dam in South Dakota to deepen the channel.
Overbey said a number of St. Louis docks and terminals already are shut down, and several barge lines recently began to hold their customers coming up from the Gulf to a maximum seven-foot draft. Since it takes two weeks or more to reach St. Louis from the Gulf, he said, they had to err on the side of caution to make sure the barges could get through the problem area at Thebes.
Should the system be completely frozen, Overbey said, area farmers could experience a delay in receiving fertilizer from those Gulf Coast suppliers. The longer loaded barges are held downriver, the costlier the goods may be.
For now, Overbey is optimistic and called the corps' efforts "spectacular." He said they moved quickly to address the problem, streamlining the process of selecting contractors to avoid unnecessary delays. If they can use their resources to keep the river passable, including releasing water from lakes upriver and removing rocks, he said, it would be a major accomplishment.
"Honestly, that's kind of like a home run for the corps," Overbey said.
While shipping groups are nervous and National Weather Service hydrologists forecast a drop to as low as one foot by the end of this month, corps officials believe they will hit that home run.
"We believe we will deepen the channel ahead of the worst-case river stage scenario, and I remain confident that navigation will continue," Maj. Gen. John Peabody, commander of the corps' Mississippi Valley division, said in a statement last week.
Robert Erlbacher II, owner of Missouri Dry Dock & Repair Co. Inc. of Cape Girardeau, said his company has seen some business from the efforts to remove the rock formations. Missouri Dry Dock has made minor repairs on the corps' contractors' barges and fabricated steel structures for them.
Erlbacher said traffic is moving and the low water has not been a problem for him so far, but if the river dropped to more shallow levels, the dry dock may not be able to drop deep enough into the water to lift some vessels for repairs. However, even in the worst scenario, he could work on empty barges, he said.
Overbey said that dangerously low water levels occur every 20 to 25 years, and that he is hopeful the trend naturally will turn around.
"The good new is, spring is coming," Overbey said.
Cape Girardeau, Mo.