Between the ice and very low water levels, barge traffic may be halted on the Mississippi River within days.
Mike Toohey, president of a barge workers’ union called the Waterways Council, says without more water in the waterway, thousands of jobs and billions in commerce are at risk.
“We’ve asked that the Corps of Engineers release water from the Missouri River reservoirs, specifically the one at Gavins Point,” Toohey says. “We have asked for 90 days of water, a million acre feet of water, to be released over the 90-day period so the navigation channel on the Mississippi River can be maintained at nine feet of navigable depth.”
The union is joining several governors of states that border the Mississippi River in asking for President Obama to intevene.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Mike Petersen says levels likely will be too low for towboats to operate on the Mississippi but the answer to the request for more water is, “no.”
“We have to keep our eyes on the longterm as far as what we’re going to do with water in any of the Corps reservoirs across the nation if we’re going to be dealing with a persistent drought,” Peterson says. “We don’t want to release water that’s not going to be there for somebody’s water supply or for irrigation in the next couple years.”
Petersen says the Corps is doing all it can to keep the waterways navigable, but he adds, the Corps gets its orders on river management from Congress.
“The Missouri River can’t operate for the support of Mississippi River navigation just by their legal authorities,” Peterson says. “The more important question is, if we start releasing water, we’re looking at year one of a drought. We don’t know how many years this drought is going to go on and it’s tough making decisions about water resources in a good year. We have to keep our eyes on the longterm.”
Toohey says barge traffic on the Mississippi River is vital to a host of industries and millions of consumers.
“We bring fertilizer north during the wintertime so the farmers will have that available in the spring,” Toohey says. “We bring de-icer to Chicago for the airports to remain open. This is the high time for export grain operations. We also move gasoline for the pumps for the consumer as well as coal for the generation of electricity. All of this is at risk.”
Toohey says in two months, $7-billion dollars in commodities move on the Mississippi River and that’s tied to 20,000 jobs and $130 million in wages.