The gentle whir of passing barges is as much a part of life in St. Louis as the Gateway Arch and the Cardinals, a constant, almost soothing backdrop to a community intricately intertwined with the Mississippi River.
But next month, those barges packing such necessities as coal, farm products and petroleum could instead be parked along the river's banks. The stubborn drought that has gripped the Midwest for much of the year has left the Mighty Mississippi critically low — and it will get even lower if the Army Corps of Engineers presses ahead with plans to reduce the flow from a Missouri River dam.
Mississippi River interests fear the reduced flow will force a halt to barge traffic at the river's midpoint. They warn the economic fallout will be enormous, potentially forcing job cuts, raising fuel costs and pinching the nation's food supply.
"This could be a major, major impact at crisis level," said Debra Colbert, senior vice president of the Waterways Council, a public policy organization representing ports and shipping companies. "It is an economic crisis that is going to ripple across the nation at a time when we're trying to focus on recovery."
At issue is a plan by the corps to significantly reduce the amount of water released from the Gavins Point Dam near Yankton, S.D., a move to conserve water in the upper Missouri River basin also stung by the drought. The outflow, currently at 36,500 cubic feet per second, is expected to be cut to 12,000 cubic feet per second over several days, starting Friday.
The Missouri flows gently into the Mississippi around a bend just north of St. Louis. From there, about 60 percent of the Mississippi River water typically comes from the Missouri. This year, because of the drought, the Mississippi is even more reliant on Missouri River water — 78 percent of the Mississippi River at St. Louis is water that originated from the Missouri.
The Mississippi is so low there now that if it drops another 5 feet, barge traffic may shut down from St. Louis to the confluence of the Ohio River at Cairo, Ill., perhaps as soon as early December. Barges already are required to carry lighter loads.
Major Gen. John Peabody, commander of the Mississippi Valley Division of the corps, said the reduced Missouri River flow will remove 2-3 feet of depth of the Mississippi at St. Louis. To help offset that, he has authorized an emergency release of water from an upper Mississippi River reservoir in Minnesota. But that will add just 3-6 inches of depth at St. Louis.
Corps officials responsible for the Missouri River say they have no choice but to reduce the flow. A congressionally-authorized document known as the Missouri River Master Manual, completed about a decade ago, requires the corps to protect interests of the Missouri River. What happens on the Mississippi as a result is incidental.
"We don't believe we have the authority to operate for the Mississippi River," said Jody Farhat, chief of the Water Management Division for the corps' Northwest Division.
Farhat said the drought is taking a toll on the upper Missouri River basin. Recreation is being hurt because the water is so shallow, she said. Indian artifacts normally under water are being exposed, making them prone to looters. And if the drought persists into next year as expected, hydropower could be impacted.
As a result, she said, water behind the reservoirs must be conserved rather than released.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri have all expressed concerns about the plan to cut the flow. An editorial Friday in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch urged Congress to come up with a management plan for the entire ecosystem, not just the Missouri River.
"Until Congress gives a higher priority to the nation's great rivers, and acts as a referee among competing interests, all of us will pay," the editorial read.
The stakes are especially high in St. Louis. The region is home to several barge companies, two of the nation's largest coal companies and countless other businesses that use the Mississippi to move their products both for domestic and international use.
Knight Hawk Coal Co. of the St. Louis-area town of Percy, Ill., uses the river to ship 80 percent of the 4.5 million tons of the black ore it bores out of southern Illinois mines each year. Closure of the river could force the company to consider something it's never done — part with some of its 400 employees.
"If they were to close the river for any significant period, I think we would have to be in a position where we'd have to look at layoffs," said Andrew Carter, a company vice president. "... Level heads need to prevail, and this river needs to stay open."
Commerce on the river always has been subject to nature's whims — ice and floods, in addition to drought, can stop river traffic.
Locks and dams built along the upper Mississippi River starting in the 1930s have helped balance the ups and downs of the waterway. Also, the corps spends months each year dredging the river bottom, adding depth so barges don't scrape. Dredging in the middle-Mississippi began a month early, in July, because of the drought, said Mike Petersen of the corps office in St. Louis.
The corps also plans to use explosives to remove two rock formations on the river bottom in southern Illinois that can impede barges during low-water periods, though that work isn't expected to start until February.
Trade groups for river interests are asking Barack Obama's administration for a presidential declaration that would force the corps to maintain the existing Missouri River flow and expedite removal of the rock formations.
Without a presidential declaration, Farhat said there's little the corps can do given the congressional mandate to work on behalf of the Missouri River basin.
"Basically we have a manual and we're required to follow it," Farhat said. "And there's nothing in that manual that talks about providing support to the Mississippi River."