ST. LOUIS — Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri are joining the chorus expressing concern over the Army Corps of Engineers' plan to reduce flow from a Missouri River reservoir, a move that could significantly affect shipping on the Mississippi River.
The corps will drastically reduce the Missouri River flow at Gavins Point Dam in southeastern South Dakota on or around Nov. 23. Plans call for the current amount of release — 36,500 cubic feet per second — to eventually decline to 12,000 cubic feet per second over the course of several days.
Jody Farhat, chief of the Water Management Division for the Northwestern Division of the corps, said Thursday the move is necessary because of drought conditions on the upper Mississippi River.
Farhat said recreation in the areas north of the dam has already been affected by the declining amount of water. She also said that if the drought persists into next year as expected, things such as hydropower could also be affected.
The reduction will mean less water from the Missouri flowing into the Mississippi, which is already low due to the summer's drought. Barge industry officials and politicians fear it will dry up even further between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., so much so that barge traffic may be halted.
Unless a significant amount of rain falls, barge industry officials and businesses that send goods down the river say the shutdown could occur around Dec. 10, a costly move that would affect the barge industry and agricultural and fuel companies, among others, that rely on the Mississippi to ship their goods.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon last week encouraged the corps to maintain the existing flow. Quinn, also a Democrat, made a similar plea Wednesday.
"I am writing to urge your cooperation with the states of Illinois and Missouri to ensure every effort is made to maximize commerce on our rivers, and to promote the export of American goods across the world market," Quinn wrote in a letter to Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works. He cited precedent, saying the corps has occasionally released additional water during the winter to meet drinking water and power generation demands.
Blunt, a Republican, said the reduction creates a "navigation issue" for the Mississippi River. He said in a statement to The Associated Press on Thursday that he has reached out to other senators from states along the rivers, "and ultimately I want to ensure the Army Corps has the ability to meet the needs of the whole system."
Throughout much of the Midwest, the soil is bone-dry because of the worst drought in decades, which climatologists expect to continue into 2013. The weekly U.S. Drought Monitor map released Thursday showed that roughly 59 percent of the land in the lower 48 states was experiencing some degree of drought, down only about a half of a percentage point from the previous week.
Barge industry trade groups also have urged the corps to keep the water flowing. 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.
Currently, the Mississippi's level is so low that barges are required to carry lighter loads, which costs more per ton to move cargo but reduces the chance of running aground.
One estimate put barge industry losses at $1 billion the last time the Mississippi was this low, roughly a quarter century ago.
Mike Petersen in the Army Corps' St. Louis office said efforts have been under way for months to avoid a Mississippi River shutdown. Dredging operations that normally begin in August started in July.
The corps also plans to use explosives to blast away treacherous rock formations at the bottom of the river near two southern Illinois towns, Thebes and Grand Tower, though that won't begin until February.