February 13, 2016

Barge associations to Obama: order more water to save Mississippi River barge traffic

Two river barge trade groups say barge traffic on the Mississippi River could come to a halt next week if someone doesn’t put more water in the River.

Waterways Council, Inc. is one of two groups that says as early as next week there won’t be enough water in the Mississippi River for the towboats that move barges to operate. It has joined the American Waterways Operators in calling on President Barack Obama to act to avoid an effective closure.

Two unions say after next week, barges on the Mississippi River will have to remain tied up until as late as April unless the Corps of Engineers releases more water into the Missouri River or the Midwest gets lots more rain.

Two unions say after next week, barges on the Mississippi River will have to remain tied up until as late as April unless the Corps of Engineers releases more water into the Missouri River or the Midwest gets lots more rain.

Waterways Council President Mike Toohey says for every 60 days barges stay off the Mississippi, 20,000 jobs and $130 million in wages are threatened and $7 billion in commodities are stranded.

“The inputs to manufacturing such a chemicals, which are a huge component of transportation on the waterways, simply don’t reach the manufacturing facilities … because there really is no other alternative to water transportation. The railroads do not have the water side deliver access that is necessary and we do not have enough trucks to take up the slack.”

Corps of Engineers spokesman Mike Petersen agrees levels are likely to get low enough to keep towboats off the River, but says the Corps can not release more water.

“The Missouri River can’t operate for the support of Mississippi River navigation just by their legal authorities, but the more important question is that if we start releasing water, we’re looking at year one of a drought. We don’t know how many years this drought is going to go on and it’s tough making decisions with water resources in a good year, but we have to keep our eyes on the long-term as far as what we’re going to do with water in any of the Corps reservoirs across the nation if we’re going to be dealing with a persistent drought.”

Toohey says the shut down could last until April unless some significant rain comes to break the drought and raise River levels.

The unions say towboats need a nine-foot draft to operate, and Toohey says very few vessels on the Mississippi can operate with anything more shallow. The unions say the River will be down to 8 feet next week.

Petersen says the Corps is already doing all it can.

“We actually just started releasing some additional water from Carlyle Lake. This would be the second kind of burst of water from Carlyle to support navigation through that reach of River at Thebes (Illinois) … that’ll reach Thebes at about the same time that the forecasts expect us to reach critically low levels.”

Petersen adds, “but ultimately … it’s going to take a whole lot of rain to get us back to normal.”

Corps: more room needed in Missouri River channel, not reservoirs, for flooding

The Corps of Engineers has released a study that suggests more room to hold flood waters is needed along the Missouri River channel, not in its upstream reservoirs.

The Missouri River Basin (courtesy; US Army Corps of Engineers)

The study evaluated how greater storage allowances in the reservoirs would have performed in historic runoff years between 1930 and 2011. The findings say more storage would not have prevented widespread damage in the 2011 flood, or the need for record releases from those reservoirs.

Northwest Division Commander Brigadier General John McMahon says it showed that additional flood control storage, alone, is not the answer.

“We’ve got to have adequate channel capacity to accommodate whatever flow we decide to.” What that means is, “generally, it’s moving the levees further back to accommodate whatever flow you want to design an improved system to.”

General McMahon says since the 1944 Flood Control Act was written, conditions on the River have changed. “The levees that were envisioned in that original authorization, some of them were never built. In other cases, they weren’t separated by the recommended distances to accommodate 100,000 cubic feet-per-second flows. In addition to that what we have is a lot of accumulation of soil deposits in the flow way and channel degradation.”

He says increasing channel capacity does not necessarily mean taking land out of farm production. “You can still farm on the wet side of the levee when it’s not flooded there, which is most of the time. And oh, by the way, there’s always what we call ‘interior drainage,’ that is land taken out of production that’s on the dry side of the levee but because of local drainage it’s flooded and it stays flooded because there’s no accommodation for draining that field through the levee. So the notion is not it’s an either/or proposition.”

View the Corps’ study here

The Corps says the report is not intended to be a complete analysis of impacts and is not a decision document. General McMahon says, “it begins the dialogue in the Basin to help discern what we might do in the future to reduce flood risk, to increase performance of the system and its resilience, to minimize damage due to events like we endured during 2011.”

AUDIO:   Jody Farhat presents a summary of the Corps Study

Corps: Missouri River reservoir prep on schedule

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ effort to open up storage space on upstream reservoirs to receive runoff this spring is going according to plan.

The Corps updated the media tonight and Water Management Division Chief Jody Farhat said already about 500,000-acre-feet more storage is open now than a year ago. “The total system storage in the main stem reservoir system is currently at 56.4-million-acre-feet. That’s 400,000-acre-feet below the base of annual flood control pool, thus providing an additional 400,000-acre-feet of additional flood control storage for the 2012 runoff season. Last year at this time system storage was at 56.9, about 100,000-acre-feet above the base of annual flood control zone.”

Farhat says that gives the Corps some wiggle room. “What this additional storage gives us is the opportunity perhaps in the spring to hold additional water back if we get rainfall events downstream. Having that additional storage provides just a little bit of additional flexibility.”

The extra space also allows more room for higher inflows upstream as well, but right now Farhat says the snowpack does not look threatening. Farhat says the snow-water equivalence on the plains reported by the National Weather Service remains less than one inch, with few exceptions. NWS shows a below-normal mountain snowpack throughout the Missouri River basin as well, though storms this week have increased that amount.

With the River and most of its reservoirs having frozen up this week, Farhat says the Corps will increase flows into the River beginning tomorrow. “We’ll step up our releases from Garrison at a rate of about 1,000-cubic-feet-per-second every other day until we reach 26- or 27,000 in early February.”