Efforts continue to keep Mississippi River open

The drought-drained Mississippi River has enough water for barges to maintain shipments of billions of dollars’ worth of commodities, and the White House will consider “any option” to keep it open for commerce, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said on Jan. 7.

Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said the outlook for the nation’s busiest waterway was positive after touring a shallow stretch for nearly an hour by boat. Shippers have been worried for months that the river will close due to historically low water levels following the worst drought in more than half a century.

Industry groups, The Waterways Council and American Waterways Operators predict an effective halt to commerce later this month. Durbin and other officials took to the water near Thebes, Illinois, where workers with the Corps of Army Engineers have been removing river-bottom rocks to aid transportation after the drought drained the Mississippi River and the rivers that feed into it.

Should the river be shut to traffic, more than 8,000 jobs would be affected, worth $54 million in wages and benefits, according to the shipping groups. It would halt the movement of 7.2 million tons of commodities worth $2.8 billion, they said.

The Corps gave “a very positive briefing,” he said, noting that melting ice and snow from recent storms should help feed the river, which is used to transport grains from the Midwest Farm Belt to the U.S. Gulf Coast for exports, and shipping imports to various parts of the United States.

The Army Corps said last week that navigation would continue. The Corps is removing the most threatening rock pinnacles near the Illinois towns of Grand Tower and Thebes, hoping to deepen the shipping channel by about two feet by mid-January, just before the river is forecast to hit critically low levels.

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