Keep the Mississippi River open for business

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The near historic low water on the Mississippi River and subsequent emergence of rock formations near Thebes and Grand Tower, Illinois, pose a significant threat to navigation. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is moving to begin the needed rock removal, a process that will take several weeks. Unless the Corps also acts to release a minimal amount of water from Missouri River reservoirs to flow into the Mississippi River during that time, it is growing increasingly likely that the river will effectively close to most barge traffic by the end of this month.

In recognition of the potential significant economic consequences of severing this national transportation artery, the American Waterways Operators (AWO), Waterways Council, Inc. (WCI), and 16 national organizations, including the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, last month requested an emergency declaration from the president to take the actions necessary to keep the Mississippi River open to navigation.

As we continue to wait for a response, the consequences of this crisis are already apparent, and the situation will only grow worse from here. Barges bound for the region have already had their drafts reduced in anticipation of restrictions. Shipments are being curtailed, and some cargoes already have been cancelled. U.S. agricultural export projections are plummeting on the expectation that barge transportation on the mid-Mississippi will effectively cease by year’s end. Grain prices are down and fertilizer prices are up, and farmers are concerned about this year’s harvest getting downriver for export as well as having enough fertilizer to begin planting next spring. Consumers also could soon feel the impact in higher costs for food, electricity, gasoline, manufactured goods and many other products. The human toll is also very real as employee layoffs and facility shutdowns are under consideration.

This presents a grim picture for the economies of the Mississippi Basin states, as well as the rest of the country. A recent study found that effectively closing the Mississippi River to barge traffic would place thousands of jobs and tens of millions of dollars in wages at risk in the states that border the river. The harshest toll would come in Illinois, Louisiana and Missouri, with more than 7,000 jobs and $42 million in wages at risk in Louisiana; 6,600 jobs and $50 million in wages in Illinois; and nearly 3,000 jobs and $20 million in wages in Missouri.

Additionally, the Mississippi River moves hundreds of millions of tons of essential commodities like corn, grain, coal, petroleum, agricultural inputs, aggregate materials, steel, and other products the U.S. relies on both for export and for domestic use. Products that would be displaced in December and January alone are valued at $7 billion, including $2.3 billion in agricultural products, $1.8 billion in chemical products, $1.3 billion in petroleum products, $534 million in crude oil and $192 million in coal. The ripple effects of this pending economic disaster will be dire.

We need the president to direct the Corps to immediately release sufficient water from the Missouri River to sustain navigation on the Mississippi while the rock removal work is taking place. The clock is ticking. Our economy remains mired in high unemployment and an anemic post-recession recovery. Further impairment and effective closure of the nation’s waterborne superhighway, the Mississippi River, place too much at risk. The president’s decision should be abundantly clear.

Allegretti is president & CEO of American Waterways Operators and Toohey is president & CEO of Waterways Council Inc.

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