ST. LOUIS — The rain-swollen Mississippi River on Thursday slowly receded along earthen levees and sandbags that have thus far held up, but storms expected to blow through the nation's midsection could keep water levels stubbornly high for a while.
The National Weather Service said the river had crested in the St. Louis area and the Illinois towns of Grafton and Alton farther north. But there was no such luck in southeast Missouri's Cape Girardeau and Dutchtown, where the river's levels weren't expected to peak until sometime Friday.
Rain that may fall over the next week in an area stretching from Nebraska and Iowa to the Great Lakes could further swell the Mississippi and the Missouri River, which feeds into it, hydrologist Mark Fuchs said from the weather service's St. Louis-area office.
"The forecast is not great news for the Missouri River," Fuchs said, cautioning that whether the storms produce enough rains to again raise the rivers to concerning levels "is all dependent on how much rain there is and where it falls."
"We'd be looking mostly at the potential of it keeping the river up higher and longer," extending the strain on barriers that so far have held back the floodwaters with few consequential breaches, Fuchs said.
Crests of the Mississippi at many points along it have widely been among the top 10 on record, although they fell well short of the heights reached during the disastrous Great Flood of 1993.
Shippers may have reason to rejoice. A Coast Guard spokesman said Thursday that part or even all of a roughly 250-mile stretch of the Mississippi that's been closed for days to barge traffic because the river's rise made currents and drifting debris unsafe for navigation could reopen, perhaps as early as Friday.
That closure has commercial implications: Grain shipments north of St. Louis haven't been able to get to the Gulf Coast for export, and everything from fertilizer to construction materials couldn't be sent upriver past St. Louis. The closure also has cut off barge access to the Illinois River, a gateway to the Great Lakes.
That navigational headache comes months after shipping along the Mississippi was perilously close to being halted altogether after the nation's worst drought in decades made river levels nearly too low for barge traffic.