ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI — Since July, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been working around the clock to keep the Mississippi River open to barge traffic crucial to the U.S. economy. The Corps is racing against time -- digging out shallow spots as the Mississippi River recedes toward historically low levels.
It is a familiar routine for the crew members of the Dredge Potter, making their way along the Mississippi River to the growing number of shallow trouble spots and digging in.
“The Potter has been working since July, and it’s now December,” said Lance Engle, from the Army Corps of Engineers.
That workload is due to the continuing drought in the central United States that has dried up the Mississippi River basin.
Engle says the Potter's three crews are dredging around-the-clock to keep the river open, and they are not being helped by Mother Nature.
“We are dredging priority locations, and just keeping up with the falling river forecast to maintain navigation,” Engle said.
The Potter scoops sediment off the bottom of the river, and transports it through a pipeline system out the other side at a rate of about 280,000 liters per minute.
“It is essentially a suction dredge, where we suck up the sandy river bottom and deposit it outside the river channel,” Engle said.
Marty Hettel’s barges at AEP River Operations use that river channel, which is 100 meters wide and less than three meters deep. But even that is forcing Hettel’s company to lighten its loads just to make it down the Mississippi.
“We are about 35 percent less efficient at this river stage than we are at normal river conditions,” Hettel said.
Hettel says the work done by dredges like the Potter is helping, but will not solve the problem. “To have any support for the river here, we need a good 10 days to two weeks of steady rainfall, and it’s not predicted. It’s just not there,” Hettel said.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers St. Louis District Commander Colonel Chris Hall agrees.
“It will take a significant amount of precipitation to bring those water tables, those aquifers, those systems back up to where we have typical river conditions,” Hall said.
“Droughts tend to continue for several years, so I don’t see this going away anytime soon,” Engle said.
Until it goes away, the work of the Potter is essential to the U.S. economy -- ensuring that the chief river of the nation's largest river system is wide and deep enough to handle the barges that carry hundreds of billions of dollars of goods each year.