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US Army Corps of Engineers Fights Receding Mississippi Waters

ST. LOUIS, Missouri — The Mississippi River is the longest and most economically important waterway in the United States. But a lack of rainfall is reducing the depth of the river. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is surveying the river in an effort to keep it navigable during one of the worst droughts in U.S. history.

On board the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers survey ship, the MV Pathfinder, Captain Terry Bequette is watching the river level drop.

"You see probably 15 or 20 foot [five or seven meters] more bank [exposed] than we had at this time last year. The sand bars behind you were not exposed last year at this time," explained Bequette.

Last year, heavy rains flooded the banks along parts of the Mississippi. This year, the level is so low, shipwrecks normally hidden under water are plainly in view.

"It's low and it's bad, but it's not the end-of-the-world bad," added Bequette. "The industry just lightens their load and hopes for the best."

That industry ships corn, soybeans, and wheat from farms in the Midwest to destinations around the globe. Roughly 60 percent of all grain exported from the United States travels on barges along this waterway. Any disruption has a ripple effect.

"There's a lot of money at stake for these farmers, and there's other commodities that are coming down the river as well, so it's not just grain but it's also chemicals are coming down the river, coal is coming down the river, various things like that," noted Jasen Brown, a Hydraulic Engineer with the Army Corps.

Brown notes that ships need a channel nearly three meters deep and 91 meters wide to safely navigate.

"We are at a low enough stage with the anticipated forecast going lower, that we're starting to initiate some communication between the navigation industry, the Coast Guard, and the Corps, so that we are accounting for all the things we need to account for as the water levels drop," he said.

Part of that accounting begins with Captain Bequette and his crew who locate the shallow spots that could endanger traffic.

"We run a dredge survey, and then they decide whether it needs dredging or if we can buoy [identify] it," Bequette explained. If we can buoy it, certainly that is the quickest solution. Obviously the further it drops the more dredging sites are going to pop up."

Companies that load their barges will have to lighten their loads as water levels drop. However, according to Russell Errett with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Mississippi River is still the most efficient way to ship commodities, as long as it stays open to traffic.
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    Kane Farabaugh

    Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.