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Key Stretch of Mississippi Could Shut This Week

Low water levels could shut down commerce on the Mississippi River this week, disrupting shipments worth billions of dollars, according to media reports.

American Waterways Operators, an industry trade group, forecasts that the river’s gauge at Thebes, Ill., will hit three feet around January 3 or 4, limiting vessel drafts to eight feet. Most ships require a nine-foot draft, Reuters says.

Already, slowing river traffic has increased export prices for grain, especially soybeans, the news agency reports.

Late last week, the US Army Corps of Engineers released water from a southern Illinois lake into the river in an attempt to bolster decreasing water levels, Reuters says. The Army Corps has been dredging the river daily between St. Louis and Cairo to keep it open, and on Dec. 21 began using explosives to clear underwater rocks that threaten the bottom of barges in shallow areas, Los Angeles Times reports.

Water on the river is near record lows because of the worst US drought in 50 years.

Shippers move some $7 billion in commodities on the Mississippi in December and January, according to the American Waterways Operators. The group has been monitoring river levels between St. Louis, Miss., and Cairo, Ill., for months in anticipation of a potential closure.

If the river shuts down, more than $2 billion in agricultural commodities, such as corn and wheat, will be at risk, according to the American Wetlands Foundation.

Some 86 percent of water used to produce the nation’s corn and soybeans comes from the Mississippi River Basin, which produces 92 percent of US agricultural exports. The bulk of products and goods from America’s heartland — worth about $10 billion a year — are shipped out of Louisiana ports, and the Mississippi is also the storm drain for 41 percent of America, according to AWF.

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