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    Race to keep Mississippi open

    Barges on the Mississippi River are being squeezed because of falling water levels.
    Colby Buchanan/Coast Guard via Associated Press
    Barges on the Mississippi River are being squeezed because of falling water levels.

    ST. LOUIS — Efforts taken to keep a crucial stretch of the drought-starved Mississippi River open to barge traffic should be sufficient to avert a shipping shutdown that the industry fears is imminent, Army Corps of Engineers and Coast Guard officials said Friday.

    The corps said crews have made ‘‘fantastic’’ progress in recent weeks clearing treacherous bedrock from a channel about 150 miles south of St. Louis near Thebes, Ill. — the portion of the river that has grown especially worrisome to the barge operators who move an array of cargo to northern states and south to the Gulf of Mexico.

    Shipping groups warned this week that the waterway there could drop to a point — 3 feet on the river gauge — where barge weight restrictions would have to be further tightened, effectively halting shipping.


    Drafts, or the portion of each barge that is submerged, already are limited to 9 feet in the middle Mississippi. If the river gauge gets to 3 feet at Thebes, the Coast Guard may be forced to limit drafts even further.

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    Officials with the trade group say that if drafts are restricted to 8 feet or lower, many operators will stop shipping.

    National Weather Service hydrologists, as of Friday, forecast that the river at Thebes could drop to the 3-foot mark by next Thursday and continue falling to 1 foot by the end of this month.

    ‘‘The uncertainty of this deteriorating situation for the nation’s shippers is having as much of an impact as the lack of water itself,’’ said Michael Toohey, president and chief executive of the Waterways Council Inc.

    Lieutenant Colin Fogarty of the Coast Guard said Friday it is possible that new draft restrictions may be considered by the middle of the month, but he believes the Army Corps’s progress near Thebes and its overall stewardship of the river should make that unlikely.


    “We are absolutely facing very historic drought conditions,’’ Fogarty said. ‘‘But this is a long-term campaign, and we’ve won many of the battles. We all want to have the deepest, safest channel, and right now we’re accomplishing that.’’

    The corps echoed that sentiment.

    ‘‘We believe we will deepen the channel ahead of the worst-case river stage scenario, and I remain confident that navigation will continue,’’ Major General John Peabody, commander of the Army Corps’ Mississippi Valley division, said in a statement this week.

    ‘‘Rumors of a river closure have been greatly exaggerated,’’ Mike Petersen, an Army Corps spokesman in St. Louis, told the Associated Press on Thursday.