THEBES, Ill. — Work began here recently on removal of rock
pinnacles from the Mississippi River that threaten to hamper barge traffic due
to low water levels.
Crews contracted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were
busy clearing the formations rising up from the riverbed here and at Grand
Tower, Ill. Meanwhile, barge traffic has been backed up for miles, as the
channel is closed from 6 a.m. to midnight each day.
“There are two spots here at Thebes,” Coast Guard Commander
Rob McClelland told AgriNews
while he observed the operation from the river bank. “The river level at
this gauge is 10 to 11 feet above the pinnacles.”
The lower Mississippi is experiencing low levels following
the severe drought that gripped much of the nation’s midsection this year. As a
result, the Corps held back water from reservoirs in North Dakota, an act that
has lowered the level south of St. Louis — below the locks and dams — even
Engineers have indicated that release of water from two
Illinois lakes — Lake Shelbyville and Carlyle Lake — are planned and will help
raise the river level slightly. But shippers have expressed concern about
navigation if the river levels fall too much.
Earlier in December, St. Louis barge company executive Marty
Hettel said low river levels could result in higher costs for materials
transported on the Mississippi, including agricultural inputs such as
The Corps is mandated by Congress to maintain a navigable
channel on the Mississippi with a minimum 300-foot width and 9-feet depth.
The spot here where the work was being done appeared to be
quite narrow, likely not much more than the minimum width. Work previously had
been carried out in 1998 to remove portions of the pinnacles.
While the Corps is responsible for maintaining the channel,
the Coast Guard has other duties.
“The Coast Guard’s role is channel and vessel management in
the area,” McClelland said. “We make sure no one’s in the area (while the river
section is closed). Our role is to ensure that commerce can proceed
The Corps has issued 60-day contracts to companies for
removal of the pinnacles. McClelland said there are three methods for clearing
The first is use of a machine similar to a backhoe, to
scrape away top portions of the pinnacles. The second option is pounding of the
structures with a jackhammer-type device. The final option — if necessary — is
drilling and blasting of the underwater formations using explosives.
The lowered river levels on the Lower Mississippi have held
up traffic for weeks. Ashley Soper, a dispatcher at Economy Boat Store at
Wicliffe, Ky., said she has seen long lines forming.
“They’re waiting for fleet space at Cairo, where they switch
out barges,” she said. “In Cairo last week, there were 1,100 barges. I’ve never
seen that many. They were waiting for days. They were in a hurry to get down,
because they thought it was going to be closed completely.”
Soper added that in some places barges were lined up 10
miles down the river from the landing where she works, which is near the
confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.