NOT good news was how National Grain & Feed Assn. (NGFA) chief executive officer Randy Gordon summarized the forecast for shipping traffic on the Mississippi River early in 2013.
Based on Dec. 26 projections from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, commerce on the 200-mile stretch of the river between St. Louis, Mo., and Cairo, Ill., could grind to a halt as soon as Jan. 3-4.
Based on the most recent 28-day weather and water forecasts, the Corps advised industry stakeholders that navigation near Thebes, Ill. -- essentially ground zero for the problems on the river -- could stop much sooner than previous forecasts that suggested that the congressionally-mandated 9 ft. navigation channel would remain open through mid-January.
NGFA noted that forecasts now suggest that the river gauge at Thebes will fall to 3 ft. this week, limiting vessel drafts to 8 ft., and the gauge will fall another foot the following week, putting drafts at only 7 ft.
Worse-case scenarios indicate a navigable draft of just 6 ft. by Jan. 19; only a very limited number of towing vessels can operate at 8 ft. or 7 ft. drafts.
In late December, the Corps quietly increased the amount of water released from the Missouri River at the Gavins Point Dam near the Nebraska/South Dakota border and said it would maintain the increased flow "until at least" Jan. 2.
The Corps also began releasing water from reservoirs located on the Kaskaskia River south of St. Louis in hopes of providing up to an additional 6 in. of depth on the critical stretch near Thebes.
The grain industry has continued its calls for the Obama Administration to authorize additional releases from Missouri River reservoirs amounting to 1% of the quantity currently stored in the river system.
A coalition of industry organizations was successful in persuading the Corps to expedite excavation of rock pinnacles near Thebes, a process that began Dec. 18 and will take at least 30 days to complete.
While the excavation and continued dredging will help, commercial shippers and the industries they support said the real key to averting a catastrophe on the Mississippi River is the additional water. Ice on the northern stretches of the river reduced flows more than expected last week, further complicating a situation created by the worst U.S. drought in 56 years.
For grain, feed and dozens of other industries, the ongoing confluence of unfortunate circumstances definitely is not good news.