ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI — A lack of rain in the central part of the United States has created a crisis on the Mississippi River. The most important inland U.S. waterway is reaching historic low levels, which could significantly disrupt shipping. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the U.S. Coast Guard, which plays a key role in determining whether the river stays open to traffic, is keeping one eye on the receding river, and another on the skies - hoping for rain.
Crewmembers on board the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Gasconade are struggling to keep traffic flowing on the Mississippi River.
As the water level beneath them continues to drop, the green and red buoys they deploy to mark the shallow spots are all that stand between successful navigation of the river and disaster.
“As it gets narrower, there’s less room to move around, and things like wind pushing on you and the shallow water coming up it makes it very difficult," said Ryan Christensen of the U.S. Coast Guard.
So difficult in fact that some barge traffic winds up stuck amid rocks or sand bars if they venture outside a 100-meter-wide, 2.7-meter-deep channel.
The Coast Guard’s goal is to prevent that from happening, a job Chief Ryan Christensen admits is becoming more difficult as the Mississippi recedes.
"I think it’s pretty tough. There’s a lot of places where two boats can pass and now it's one way traffic that they have to choose to go through there one boat at a time," he said.
Barges that make their way up and down the Mississippi River carry more than $100 billion worth of goods every year. Any disruption has significant consequences for the U.S. economy.
“We move crude oil out of here, anhydrous ammonia, coal, all the grain products, all the farm products. So yeah, this is a pretty critical waterway," he said.
That critical waterway is the lifeblood of Marty Hettel’s AEP River Operations.
“We transport about 70-million tons of commodities on the inland waterways, with our approximately 3,250 barges," he said.
The place where Hettel is standing for this interview along the Mississippi River near St. Louis is usually submerged. He says that level will drop even further unless more water upstream is released.
“About 60 percent of the water you see behind us came off the Missouri River, so as the (Army) Corps (of Engineers) cuts back the flow from the Missouri River, of course our levels in St. Louis are going to fall out," he said.
But releasing more of that flow off the Missouri River is a politically and environmentally sensitive decision. Releasing more water upstream might be a quick fix to solve some problems downstream on the Mississippi, but it could impact future water levels throughout the system, particularly without a significant amount of precipitation in the coming weeks.
Hettel says the alternative could be just as bad.
“It’s going to stop shipping between St. Louis and Cairo (Illinois) unless something is done to augment the supply of water. The only possibility of doing that is to get some additional releases off the Missouri River," he said.
In the meantime, the U.S. Coast Guard continues to plot a course ahead, showing barges how to make their way along the troubled river, all the while hoping for rain, or snow.