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Coast Guard closes 11-mile stretch of Mississippi River

Monday, August 20, 2012 | 6:32 p.m. CDT; updated 6:44 p.m. CDT, Monday, August 20, 2012

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Nearly 100 boats and barges were waiting for passage Monday along an 11-mile stretch of the Mississippi River that has been closed due to low water levels, according to the New Orleans-based Coast Guard..

Spokesman Ryan Tippets said the stretch of river near Greenville, Miss., has been closed intermittently since Aug. 11, when a vessel ran aground.

Tippets said the area is currently being surveyed for dredging and a Coast Guard boat is replacing eight navigation markers. Forty northbound vessels and 57 southbound vessels were stranded and waiting for passage Monday afternoon, he said.

Tippets said it is not immediately clear when the river will reopen. A stretch of river near Greenville also closed in 1988 due to low water levels caused by severe drought. The river's water level hit a record low on the Memphis gauge that year.

The Mississippi River from Illinois to Louisiana has seen water levels plummet due to drought conditions in the past three months. Near Memphis, the river level was more than 12 feet lower than normal for this time of year.

Maintaining the navigation channel is essential to keeping vessels from colliding or running aground. Thousands of tons of material are shipped on the river each day.

The Army Corps of Engineers is using dredges to dig out sand and ensure the navigation channel is deep enough for barges loaded with coal, steel, agricultural products and other goods. The corps is required to provide a minimum navigation channel that is 9 feet deep and 300 feet wide on the lower Mississippi River.

Shippers who move material up and down the river on a daily basis have complained that the shallow river is forcing them to lighten the loads on their barges to avoid hitting bottom. Lighter loads mean less revenue for the shippers, who still have to deal with costs such as labor and fuel.

Also, low water at docks and terminals makes it more difficult to load or unload material, as ships have trouble getting close enough to docks.

The river level in Memphis was -8.5 feet on Friday, according to the Corps of Engineers. The minus reading does not mean the river is dried up — it's a measurement based on how the Memphis river gauge is designed. Essentially, the reading means the river level is far below normal.

The record for the lowest measured water level for the Mississippi River near Memphis is -10.7 feet in 1988. The corps said the river is not expected to reach record lows.


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