Barges on the Mississippi already are carrying lighter and more frequent loads, and some operators say they'll halt shipping if they face more restrictions. Trade groups say a prolonged stoppage of shipping on the Mississippi could have an economic impact reaching into billions of dollars, with the movement of agricultural products, coal, petroleum and other goods reliant on the river for transit.
That possible fallout hasn't been lost on members of Illinois' congressional delegation, led by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin. On Monday, the Democrat gathered representatives of potentially affected industries for a private meeting at which the Army Corps underlined its efforts to keep the river open, including hustling in a second dredging machine last week to help clear channel-clogging sediment.
"The Mississippi River is the cog that turns the wheel for many industries in Illinois," Durbin said after the summit in East Alton, northeast of St. Louis. "From farms to coal mines, a great deal of Illinois' economy depends on the Mississippi."
National Weather Service hydrologists forecast that the river at St. Louis, barring significant rainfall, could dip by the end of this month to about 9 feet deep — the point at which the Coast Guard has said further restrictions on barge traffic are likely. The river depth in St. Louis as of Monday was about 10.5 feet.
But hydrologists say there is a ray of hope: Snow, some of it heavy, is forecast in the upper Mississippi River area, perhaps up to a foot on Thursday in parts of Wisconsin and Michigan and lesser amounts in Iowa, Illinois and northern Missouri. Depending on how warm it then becomes, Mark Fuchs said Monday, some snowmelt could make its way downriver.
Ice, Fuchs said, "is the worst-case scenario" as the weather turns colder and freezes the river to the north, further reducing the amount of water flowing downstream and potentially lowering water levels even further.