The drought-drained Mississippi River is forecast to rise slightly this week between St. Louis and Cairo, Illinois, but later continue its decline toward historic lows, according to a National Weather Service forecast.  It is expected that the river will remain safe for barge traffic at least for next week and possibly until January 26 as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continues to make progress in removing submerged rocks. Forecasts for warmer weather, which would limit river-choking ice from forming, and the potential for rain next week bolstered that outlook.

Meanwhile, low water as a result of the worst drought since 1956 has already impeded the flow of billions of dollars worth of grain, coal, fertilizer, and other commodious between the central  United States and shipping terminals at the Gulf of Mexico.  Tonnage of grained moved by barges in the week ending December 29 was down 28 percent from a year earlier, the government reported this week.

The Army Corps of Engineers is working to remove river-bottom rock pinnacles near the southern Illinois towns of Grand Tower and Thebes, which could impede shipping if the river becomes too shallow.  The Corps remains optimistic that the nine-foot-deep channel, which it says most commercial vessels need, can be maintained.  The Corps is working to deepen the channel by about two feet by mid-January, just before the river has been forecast to hit critically low levels.  The Corps has also been dredging various soft-bottom sections of the river for months to maintain a deep enough shipping channel.

Shippers has been at odds with the Army Corps of Engineers, saying that most tow boats, which pull barges, need more than 9 feet of water to operate safely.  Shipping companies are calling for more water to be released from upstream reservoirs.  The U.S. Coast Guard has the authority to close the river in an emergency.  “We do not foresee the necessity to close the river,” Colin Fogarty, a Coast Guard spokesman in St. Louis, said this week.

Closing the river could threaten as much 8,000 jobs, cost $54 million in wages and benefits, and halt the movement of 7.2 million tons of commodities valued at $2.8 billion in cargo that is expected to move along the Mississippi River this month, according to the American Waterways Operators, an Arlington, Virginia-based industry group.