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With winter rain and snow, Mississippi River water levels bounce back

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013 9:41 a.m. CDT

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(MCT) — ST. LOUIS — Barges are carrying full loads on the drought-stricken Mississippi River again after low water levels made shipping a “touch-and-go” proposition late last year.

Since the St. Louis river gauge at Eads Bridge approached a historic low point on New Year’s Day, water levels have bounced back, thanks to badly needed winter snow and rain across the Midwest. The latest round of storms to pound the region are expected to generate additional runoff.

“We are pretty confident we have made it through the worst of 2012 to 2013,” said Mike Petersen, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers in St. Louis. Then he cautioned: “We have won a couple of crucial battles, but the campaign is going to continue as long as we are in a drought.”

In response to unusually low water levels on the Mississippi River, shipping channels were narrowed to the point where barge tows sometimes had to wait for other tows moving in the opposite direction before continuing on their way. Barge companies lightened loads while the industry sought additional water releases from reservoirs on the Missouri River.

The St. Louis gauge reached minus 4.57 feet on Jan. 1, officials said. That was the ninth-lowest reading on record and about 11/2 feet shy of the record low. Early Tuesday — following heavy overnight rain in the St. Louis area — the gauge read minus 0.5 feet. River levels are forecast to rise through the week.

The barge industry has resumed more normal operations.

“We have been moving with full drafts the last week or 10 days,” said Marty Hettel, senior manager of bulk sales at AEP River Operations in Chesterfield. “Mother Nature has helped us out. We have had some good rain events.”

The Corps of Engineers began dredging earlier than normal last year, and stepped up efforts to clear potential limestone obstructions from the Mississippi near Thebes, Ill. Petersen said no barges or tows have run aground in the main shipping channel.

If the Corps of Engineers confronts the similar low-water conditions during the upcoming year, Petersen said, then dredging will have to be prioritized regionally instead of locally, with the middle Mississippi River getting top priority.

Industry officials openly fretted about river closures because of low water, but those never materialized. Petersen said the only times the Mississippi was closed to barge traffic was during the rock-blasting operations — when the corps coordinated times barges could pass — and during separate barge accidents at Locks and Dam 27, just north of St. Louis, in September and January.

“We do expect the river to come up naturally in the next couple of weeks,” Petersen said.

Mark Fuchs, a National Weather Service hydrologist in Weldon Spring, said the season for the lowest river stages generally runs from December through early February and “we’re definitely past that.”

Monday night’s storm brought about 1 inch of rain to the St. Louis region by Tuesday morning. Further outstate, the storm dumped heavy snow in places such as Columbia and Kirksville. West-central Illinois also got some snow.

Still, vast portions of the Midwest remain under drought conditions, Fuchs said, making weather systems that pushed through Missouri and Illinois in the last week a boon to both river basins.

The national drought map shows St. Louis is still in abnormally dry conditions while central Missouri remains in severe drought conditions. But the map shows that central Illinois and southeast Missouri are essentially drought-free, Fuchs said.

“What we really need to end the drought locally is a pattern — and we may be seeing it now — of one event after another after another, “ Fuchs said. “The spring here is going to be a critical time for us. If we just had some events the first few weeks of March and it just stopped, that would not help much.”

Traditionally, the river rises in March as snow melts to the north, spring rains set in and reservoirs begin cutting loose additional water upstream.

Hettel, the barge company manager, cautioned that it will take sustained rain and water management to prevent a replay next fall and winter.

“There is no doubt that unless we get enough precipitation to get us through next winter, we will be in the same scenario next fall,” when water releases are reduced on the Missouri River, Hettel said.

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