By Karl Plume
(Reuters) - Mississippi River barge operators and shipping groups on Tuesday asked U.S. President Barack Obama to declare a state of emergency on the river and direct the Army Corps of Engineers to keep the drought-lowered waterway open to commercial traffic to avert an "economic catastrophe."
Water on the Mississippi River along the busy stretch from St. Louis to Cairo, Illinois was expected to recede to record-low levels by mid-December, effectively halting the flow of barges that carry billions of dollars worth of grain, coal, steel, fuel and other products.
In a letter to the White House and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the American Waterways Operators, the Waterways Council, and 16 other groups asked that the president order the Army Corps to immediately remove river-bottom rock at two locations, which posed a risk to boats during low water conditions.
The groups also requested that water releases from dams on northern sections of the Missouri River, which flows into the Mississippi at St. Louis, not be reduced as planned.
The request was made pursuant to section 501(b) of the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988.
ECONOMIC DISASTER IN THE MAKING
The Missouri River normally accounts for about 60 percent of the water in the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Cairo, but that share was closer to 80 percent this year because of the drought-reduced flow on the Mississippi.
The Army Corps is directed by law to adjust the flow from upriver dams on the Missouri to conserve water in a series of reservoirs, which are maintained for drinking water, power generation, navigation, recreation and other purposes.
Water in the reservoirs fell to below-normal levels this autumn due to the worst U.S. drought in 56 years. As a result, the Corps enacted drought conservations measures.
Flows could remain below normal next spring if the drought persists.
A Mississippi River closure in December and January would halt the flow of $7 billion worth of grain, coal, crude oil, petroleum products and chemicals, industry groups said.
The governors of Iowa, Illinois and Missouri, 15 U.S. Senators and 62 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have also written the Administration to keep the river open.
"The most immediate effects would be felt up and down the river, but would spread quickly from those that work on the river to those that ship on the river to manufacturing workers and eventually to all of us as consumers," said Mike Toohey, president and CEO of Waterways Council, Inc.
"This is an economic disaster in the making and the Administration needs to act now to stop it."
(Reporting by Karl Plume in Chicago; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer)