Barge operators and those who ship on the Mississippi have warned that stopping barge traffic would risk economic catastrophe for coal, agriculture, petroleum and other interests. Some companies have said they may have to lay off workers if barge traffic is halted for any significant amount of time.
Barges carry 20 percent of the country's coal and more than 60 percent of its grain exports. Other cargo — such as petroleum products, lumber, sand, industrial chemicals and fertilizer — also gets shipped along the Mississippi River.
Trade groups for waterway operators have even asked President Barack Obama to intervene. A message left with the White House on Friday was not returned.
The weather forecast offers little hope. No big storms are in the forecast. Scott Truett of the National Weather Service office in St. Louis said that while the drought has eased in the St. Louis area in recent months, it persists in the upper Mississippi and upper Missouri river basins — the areas that feed water to the mid-Mississippi River region.
“That means less runoff and hence low water levels,” Truett said.
The corps has taken several steps to keep the Mississippi open as possible, including increased dredging. It also plans to remove two rock formations in the river in southern Illinois that jut up, potentially scraping the bottoms of barges when water levels are low.
But that work isn't expected to start until February. The letter signed by the 15 senators also asked the corps to expedite the rock removal.
Corps officials in Omaha say the drought already has hurt recreation in the upper Missouri River areas. The low water is exposing Native American artifacts, leaving them prone to looting. And if it persists into spring, hydropower could be impacted.
Corps officials in Omaha say they are bound by the Missouri River Master Manual to act in the best interest of the Missouri River basin, and what happens on the Mississippi is incidental.