WASHINGTON, DC — US Sen. Dick Durbin said on Jan. 7 that the Mississippi River has enough water for barges to navigate, but industry groups and barge operators say the river won’t be able to maintain levels later in January without releases from the Missouri River.

Durbin, who toured the river with other officials, said the White House will consider any option to keep the river open for commerce, Reuters reported.

The worst drought in more than half a century has dropped the river to dangerously low levels. For weeks, the Army Corps of Engineers and shipping groups have predicted the river will eventually drop low enough that it will be closed to barge traffic.

Billions of dollars of commodities are shipped using the river. The American Waterways Operators (AWO) and Waterways Council, Inc. (WCI) said a disruption in the Mississippi River could affect more than 8,000 jobs, as well as 7.2 million tons of commodities valued at $2.8 billion in January alone.

This does not take into account the uncertainty in the supply chain that affected operations during the month of December or any potential economic impacts that will extend into February if the nation's waterborne superhighway effectively comes to a halt, the groups said.

“The uncertainty of this deteriorating situation for the nation’s shippers is having as much of an impact as the lack of water itself,” said Michael J. Toohey, WCI’s president and chief executive officer. “The Administration must direct the Corps to release enough water to sustain navigation on the Mississippi River now or time will have run out and an effective shutdown could remain in place for weeks.”

The groups said on Jan. 3 that based on the latest weather and water forecast for the river suggests that commerce on the Mississippi River could come to a halt between Jan. 5 and 15 when the required 9-foot draft will fall to an 8-foot draft. The majority of towboats require a 9-foot draft to operate and only a very small number of towing vessels can operate at 8- or 7-foot drafts.

On Jan. 7, Durbin toured the area near Thebes, Ill., where workers are removing river-bottom rocks.
“They are making good progress in clearing that section of the river, which presents the biggest challenge,” Durbin told Reuters. "The pool of water is sufficient to move all of the barge traffic that they need."

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 US Gulf Coast for exports, and shipping imports to various parts of the US.

The Mississippi River gauge at Thebes rose to 4 feet on Jan. 7 from 3.9 feet on Jan. 4. It was forecast to slip to 2.4 feet by next week, the lowest level there since 1988 and the second lowest on record.