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Mississippi River levels

A towboat pushes a barge Friday on the Mississippi River south of the Jefferson Barracks Bridge. (Post-Dispatch file photo by Erik M. Lunsford)

ST. LOUIS • Barge industry leaders on Friday renewed their warnings of far-reaching economic losses in the Midwest if water levels on the Mississippi River continue to drop to levels that disrupt shipping.

Severe drought conditions coupled with the reduced flows expected from the upper Missouri River later this month have prompted the American Waterway Operators and the Waterways Council to warn that river commerce could come to a standstill by early December.

“Slowing down or severing the country’s inland waterway superhighway would imperil the shipment of critical cargo for export, significantly delay products needed for domestic use, threaten manufacturing production and power generation, and negatively impact jobs up and down the river,” said Craig Philip, chief executive officer at Ingram Barge Co., based in Nashville, Tenn.

Philip and other industry officials spoke during a Friday morning news conference in St. Louis, alongside Maj. Gen. John W. Peabody, commander of the Mississippi Valley Division of the Army Corps of Engineers, and Rear Adm. Roy A. Nash, commander of the Coast Guard’s 8th District.

Industry officials are calling on the administration of President Barack Obama to issue a presidential declaration to allow an emergency response to the “crisis.”

Peabody said the Corps of Engineers, which manages the waterways, has been bracing for the latest round of low water since the drought year of 1988. This year, the corps has been involved in “continuous dredging” since July — with up to two dozen dredges operating on the river at one time — and has been storing water where possible.

Water that had been held in the St. Paul District, north of Iowa, will be released and is expected to make its way to the middle and lower Mississippi River in three to four weeks.

Peabody added that the corps is contracting to blast rock pinnacles near Thebes and Grand Tower, Ill., which threaten commerce on certain stretches of the river.

Meantime, the corps has taken drought-conservation steps along the Missouri River to the west. The plan involves reducing the typical winter flows from the Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota by Nov. 23.

“We have to start thinking that we may not be able to have the water we are accustomed to for an extended period of time,” Peabody said. “That means we are going to have to husband our resources for when the situation gets truly dire. And in my personal estimate, we are not there yet.”

But Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and others have sided with the industry and urged Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, to continue the “flow support” from the Missouri River reservoirs to respond to the emergency condition on the Mississippi.

“We’ve got a situation here where we could be looking at folks not having employment,” said George Foster, president of JB Marine Service Inc. in St. Louis. “The impact of extensive closures of the Mississippi River will immediately be felt by those whose livelihoods are directly tied to the river.”

The barge industry has warned that the low water levels could affect shipments of grain, domestic crude oil and coal in December, triggering widespread consequences.

When asked whether he envisions flows reaching a point where the Mississippi River is closed to commerce in December, Nash said the barges may carry lighter loads and tows could be reduced if water levels are low.

“We assess the waterway, how constrained is it and what can be moved safely through the waterway,” Nash said.

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Ken Leiser is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.