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River’s Low Level Poses Problem

If something barring an epic flood doesn’t happen soon, the Mississippi River could be too low for navigation. Because of the severe drought in 2012, waterborne commerce on the middle Mississippi River is in real danger.

For barges to move through the Mississippi River, there has to be at least nine feet of water throughout the navigation channel. Current projections show that, as early as mid-December, water levels in some areas of the river fell below the nine-foot draft. With barge travel moving the majority of America’s commodities (one barge can carry 1,750 tons compared to a rail bulk car’s 110 tons and a tractor trailer’s 25 tons), and the Mississippi River being the main thoroughfare, the U.S. economy could be in drastic trouble if water levels aren’t maintained.

In December and January alone, it’s estimated the economy could take a $7 billion hit. Included in this projection is the loss of up to 20,000 jobs and $130 million in lost wages. To avoid the catastrophe, the American Farm Bureau Federation, along with other business groups, has urged President Obama to issue a presidential declaration of emergency for the entire Mississippi River area.

These organizations also requested that he direct the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to remove rock pinnacles immediately along the river and release enough water from Missouri River reservoirs to preserve the nine-foot water level.

Low Levels Need Attention

AFBF’s transportation specialist Andrew Walmsley says that a balanced approach is needed: A moderated but steady release of water to keep the Mississippi River flowing, coupled with the removal of large rocks to give barges more clearance in low water areas. This effort by the Corps would provide a short-term solution until spring rains could help refill the river.

If the Corps doesn’t act soon, agriculture is looking at major delays in shipping its goods – like an estimated 300 million bushels of grain and oilseeds worth more than $2 billion. What happens – or doesn’t happen – on the river could have a major impact on U.S. agriculture’s global competitiveness.

This is a busy time of year for farmers who are shipping out their products, trying to stay in front of South American exporters who have a later harvest.

American Farm Bureau contributed to this article.