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Drought Affecting River Traffic

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DOWNTOWN ST. LOUIS, MO. (KTVI) - The St. Louis region is now in what experts call a severe drought stage and headed for the extreme drought stage.  We’re really starting to see the impact on the Mississippi River. Industry is really starting to feel it.

The river stage is 12’ below normal in St. Louis; 27’ below flood stage and falling.

“From river standpoint the critical point starts now,” said Mark Fletcher, who owns the Ceres Barge Line in East St. Louis.

He’s now crossing a riverfront beach and small canyons of cracked clay to get to the tow boat decks on the Sauget riverfront.

The river level that’s typically 15’ is now at 3’.

“Without additional rain, it’s going to continue to go down. That’s going to restrict the number of barges we can take on each towboat to go south. It also restricts the amount of material we can ship on each barge,” Fletcher said.

“We’re going to be slowly trending down to zero foot,” said Russell Erret, a hydraulic engineer with Army Corps of Engineers in St. Louis.

“The good thing is, 1988-89 (the last drought of this magnitude) was two decades ago. We’ve put a lot of dike and revetment structures out there (in the river channel) since then, so a lot of those hot spots they were trying to dredge numerous times in ‘88-‘89, a lot of those have actually been self-dredged by those dike structures,” Erret said.

He said there were in 8 dredge barges active in the St. Louis region, digging out the river channel during the last major drought; this time just one.

“If we’re sitting at zero or negative 1 foot, and we start dropping 2-3 foot, that’s very significant. That’s when you’ll start seeing some restrictions and some significant issues,” Erret said.

Barge lines have begun reducing their tow sizes from 40 barges to 30 between St. Louis and New Orleans, with a cutback to 25 barges, maybe even fewer, looming.

They may soon have to cut the load size on each barge, too.

“So, that just increases your costs by double,” Fletcher said.

The river may go so low; those arch-shaped dikes now above water near the McKinley Bridge north of Downtown and dredge barges will be less and less effective.

Also, with the drought crushing crop yields, further driving up prices, foreign markets for things like U.S. feed corn, may dry up like the St. Louis river banks.

“Where do the Chinas and Indias of the world, what do they pay to get that material over there?” Fletcher asked. “I hate to say, but I’d appreciate a hurricane these days but I’d appreciate a hurricane these days,” Fletcher said. “You’d never wish that on the Gulf Coast, but quite frankly they tend to push a lot of moisture up into the system and tend to break cycles.”

Erret and Fletcher agreed the worst thing about this could be the lasting impact. It takes a long time for the river levels to rise back to normal after drought this severe; even if it happened more quickly than usual, there could be little to ship in the fall and early Winter if those foreign markets for US crops dry up.

For more information about St. Louis Region Rivers, click here.

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