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Barge Traffic Ordered Off Missouri River Again

Below normal spring runoff and continued dry conditions causes shortening of navigation season by 44 days.

navigators have hit a snag. All barge traffic was ordered off the river again last week in what has become a continuation of on again-off again summer operations bringing a halt to the shipment of cement, asphalt, fertilizer and steel much needed by end-users.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office in Omaha reports that below normal spring runoff and continued dry conditions over much of the upper Missouri River basin mean that the commercial navigation season will be shortened by 44 days. This is the fourth consecutive year that it has been shortened to conserve water in the system of reservoirs.

"Storage in the big reservoirs normally increases by more than 3.6 million acre feet (MAF) in the period from April 1 to July 1," explains Larry Cieslik, chief of the Corps Water Management office. "This year it has increased only 2.1 MAF. Total storage on July 1 was 38.9 MAF."

River flows to support navigation will remain at minimum service levels throughout the rest of the 2006 season, according to the Corps. The river navigation season was shortened by six days in 2003, 47 days in 2004 and 48 days in 2005. Gavins Point releases during October and November will be reduced to levels that will provide significant water conservation while continuing to support downstream water intakes.

"It's outrageous that the Corps has chosen not to provide minimum service navigation flows this summer," says Randy Asbury, executive director of the Coalition to Protect the Missouri River. "Though they are ostensibly meeting the letter of the Master Manual by erratically hitting flow targets to Kansas City, they are failing miserably to meet the intent of those targets - to provide a pre-determined navigation service level to the mouth of the Missouri River in St. Louis."

To add insult to the injury of historically low tributary inflows, Asbury says, the Corps' deficient dike maintenance program has surfaced at an inopportune time as approximately 75 feet of River Mile (RM) 160 dike has eroded creating a 40-foot hole, the diversion of much needed water from the channel and shoaling. Consequently, a Coast Guard advisory was issued on July 25 limiting drafts to seven feet or less - one foot below the eight foot depth prescribed in the Missouri River Master Manual for minimum service operations. In a recent Coast Guard conference call, it was anticipated that 10,000 to 15,000 ton of rock would be needed to repair the RM160 dike over about a ten-day period.

Missouri River navigators have repeatedly alerted the Corps of that concern over the past few years. Navigators and others had been assured that dredging contracts were in place to assist in low water conditions, it was made known in the same call that the contracts were for dredging units of inadequate size to address the volume of material to be dredged.

As navigators consider coming back to the river, they must contend with the possibilities of damaging their equipment in extreme low water locations. To alleviate some of the concern they would have, the Corps has offered depth reconnaissance and escort services to navigators upon request to guide the long barges through narrow and shallow waters. Though the escort service sounds great in concept, a navigator that assessed the offer in practical application stated, "That's like trying to follow a bumblebee with a 747."

"Very simply, the Corps is not fulfilling their congressional mandate to support navigation," Asbury says. "What navigation needs immediately are actions that produce results to keep navigators on the river the entire season - not unfulfilled promises and ongoing navigation unreliability. While reservoir levels currently hover at 38 million-acre-feet of water (MAF), the Master Manual states that navigation is not to be terminated in drought conditions until reservoir levels hit 31 MAF. The Corps has essentially cheated the navigation industry out of seven million acre-feet of water and struck another blow to navigation reliability."

Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon was notified about the U.S. Coast Guard warning and issued a letter to Corps Brigadier General Gregg Martin on July 26. He asked for immediate answers on why the Corps operations did not maintain an 8-foot channel to provided sufficient water for "minimum service" navigation, as stated in the Corps' new Master Manual. He also asked for the Corps' plans to make the river safe for commercial navigation from St. Louis to Sioux City through the end of the season.

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