While winter storms brought heavy snow to many parts of the Midwest in December, last summer’s drought continues to negatively impact the Mississippi River, one of the country’s most important means of transporting goods, as well as the nation’s economy and the barging industry.

Due to a lack of rain and snow last year, water levels in some parts of the Mississippi are so close to the minimum needed for water traffic that shippers of grain, coal and other goods are transporting lighter loads and worrying about the possible closure of the river in certain areas, particularly between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., reportedly the most impacted stretch. The Mississippi River and its tributaries carry goods from a region that produces 90% of U.S. farm exports. In addition, 60% percent of grain exports passing through New Orleans.

On Dec. 17, the federal government announced a month-long project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Coast Guard to increase the water flow and ease navigation along parts of the Mississippi. The project involves removing rock formations in certain areas of the river, including near Thebes, Ill., about 128 miles south of St. Louis, and releasing water from Illinois’ Carlyle Lake, located 50 miles east of St. Louis. The work is expected to impact barge traffic on a 180-mile stretch of the river and result in a loss of about $7 billion through the end of January for the barge industry.

The White House is also granting emergency, immediate permits to trucks for offloading and ground transportation of goods normally shipped along the Mississippi River, according a release issued by the Independent Bakers Association (IBA). In addition, 200 rail cars have been made available to transport grain to New Orleans.

In response to the government’s actions, IBA chairman Len Amoroso submitted a letter to President Obama, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrators and the chairmen and ranking members of the Transportation Committee in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Amoroso says in the letter, “I am writing on behalf of our membership across the country depending on the transportation of crucial products along the Mississippi River. The disastrous drought of the Mississippi will prevent shipment of goods between St. Louis, Mo., and Cairo, Ill., without immediate action by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts that water flow in the Mississippi River will reduce to below 9 ft. in the first week of January 2013. Nearly all transportation vessels cannot travel the Mississippi at water levels below 9 ft. Thereby, halting shipments of commodities valued at $7 billion.

“Alternative ground transportation routes are not economically viable or feasible to meet industry demands. Most companies do not have the additional revenue to finance new ground transportation efforts. Higher pricing to offset the cost of ground transportation will be devastating to many businesses in the baking industry. The baking industry is still recovering from the harsh summer drought that reduced corn and wheat corps.

“IBA strongly requests that the president declare an emergency and immediately direct the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to release water from the Missouri River basin as needed to maintain a 9-ft. waterway for commercial navigation.”

Source: Independent Bakers Association, Christian Science Monitor, Reuters, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers