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Drought's winter toll: Mississippi barges face losses while US blasts river (+video)

Traffic along 180 miles of the drought-stricken Mississippi will be curtailed for a month, at a cost of billions to the barging industry, to allow the US to blast rock formations and raise river levels.

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Even in winter, the severe drought that plagued a great swath of the nation’s agricultural and ranching states this summer is taking a punishing toll on the nation’s economy, with the Mississippi River barging industry the latest sector to fall victim.

With water levels in the river already dangerously low and continuing to fall, the US Army Corps of Engineers and the US Coast Guard embarked Tuesday on a month-long program to increase water flow and ease navigation, during which barge traffic will be severely curtailed on a 180-mile stretch of river. Barging industry officials say they expect about $7 billion in losses through the end of January as a result.

The Obama administration announced the project on Monday, saying the Corps and the Guard planned to blast massive rock formations in shipping channels along a 15-mile stretch near Thebes, Ill., about 128 miles south of St. Louis. The agencies also say they will release new water from reservoirs connected to the Carlyle River in southern Illinois.

In total, the $10 million project is expected to add about six inches of water depth to the Mississippi by next week, the Corps says.

“Every inch counts right now. It’s not a permanent fix. But we’re using every tool at our disposal to keep commerce moving,” says Mike Peterson, a Corps spokesman.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois, at a press conference in nearby Alton, Ill., said Monday that his office is tracking efforts with the Corps “to ensure we are doing everything we can to keep traffic moving on the river.”

“From farms to coal mines, a great deal of Illinois’ economy depends on the Mississippi,” he said.

While the river will not be completely shut down to barge traffic during the month-long project, it will not allow passage during daytime hours, between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. Vessels will be allowed to pass on a first-come, first-served basis arranged by the Coast Guard.

The barging industry says the efforts are not enough to increase both the water flow and depth that are needed to return the Mississippi to pre-drought levels. They have repeatedly urged the Corps to open up a reservoir system connected to the Missouri River to release at least 2 percent of its water, which is needed to compensate for river flows that are becoming “shallower and narrower” by the day, says Ann McCulloch, a spokeswoman with the American Waterways Operators, an advocacy organization in Washington.

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