By Jim Salter
ST. LOUIS — A group of U.S. senators will ask President Barack Obama for an emergency declaration in an effort to keep barges moving on the drought-riddled Mississippi River, a spokesman for Sen. Claire McCaskill told The Associated Press Tuesday.
Senators from Mississippi River states are seeking an emergency directive that would increase the flow of water from an upper Missouri River dam and expedite removal of rock formations in the middle Mississippi River that impede barge traffic during periods of low water. McCaskill spokesman Drew Pusateri did not yet have a complete list of senators involved in the request.
Pusateri said McCaskill also will write to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon asking him to formally request a disaster designation. He said a gubernatorial request could move through bureaucratic channels more quickly than the request from senators.
The Army Corps of Engineers on Friday began reducing the outflow from the Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota. The flow, originally 37,500 cubic feet per second, will gradually be cut to 12,000 cubic feet per second by Dec. 11.
That means less water coming down the Missouri and into the Mississippi River. The already-low Mississippi River level is dropping as a result and could get so low that barge traffic will be severely restricted or even halted by mid-December.
Corps officials in Omaha, Neb., have said the reduction is necessary because low water in the upper Missouri River basin is affecting recreation, exposing Native American artifacts that are normally covered by water, and may eventually impact hydropower. They say they are bound by the Missouri River Master Manual to act in the best interest of the Missouri River, and what happens on the Mississippi is incidental.
In a teleconference with reporters on Tuesday, Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said the corps move was another example of “friction” between the upper basin of the Missouri River and the lower Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
Three trade groups and 15 other national organizations also on Tuesday submitted a letter to Obama and to the Federal Emergency Management Agency requesting a presidential emergency.
“This is an economic disaster in the making and the Administration needs to act now to stop it,” said Mike Toohey, president and CEO of Waterways Council Inc.
Nearly 80 members of Congress and governors of Missouri, Illinois and Iowa all wrote letters to Army Assistant Secretary Jo-Ellen Darcy in the weeks leading up to the flow reduction, urging that the move be averted or at least delayed.
McCaskill said in a statement that action is needed immediately.
“This issue is impacting jobs and businesses in Missouri as we speak, so we don’t have weeks to wait for a response from the Army Corps,” McCaskill said. “It’s time for the president to take action to protect our jobs and businesses.”