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Corps rejects plea to increase water flowing into Mississippi River

| Friday, Dec. 7, 2012, 7:23 p.m.
This Dec. 5, 2012 photo provided by The United States Coast Guard shows barges passing in tight quarters due to low water levels as they navigate the Mississippi River near St. Louis. In a letter obtained by The Associated Press Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, Army Assistant Secretary Jo-Ellen Darcy, a top Army Corps official, turned back requests by federal lawmakers and the barge industry to release more of the Missouri River it is withholding, believing the drought-starved Mississippi River the Missouri feeds still will remain open to shipping despite mounting concerns. (AP Photo/United States Coast Guard, Colby Buchanan)

The Army Corps of Engineers rejected shippers' requests to increase the flow from a major Mississippi River tributary, which a barge company said is needed to keep open the nation's busiest waterway.

The Corps found there would be “significant negative effects” on the Missouri River system by increasing the flow, including depleting drinking water supplies, loss of marine- wildlife habitat and higher bills for hydropower users, Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Army's assistant secretary for civil works, said in a Dec. 6 letter to Sen. Dick Durbin, released on Friday.

Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, was among lawmakers seeking a study to help make the case for additional water flow.

“The letter tells me we need to continue to pray for rain,” Martin Hettel, senior manager of bulk sales for AEP River Operations LLC, said in an interview aboard a tow boat on the Mississippi River just south of Chester, Illinois.

Barges carrying grain, soybeans, coal, oil and other commodities on the Mississippi River have started to reduce their loads to navigate waters shrunk by the worst drought in 50 years.

By the end of this month, rock structures in the river near southern Illinois threaten to curtail traffic as the river recedes, according to a Dec. 5 forecast from the National Weather Service.

Companies that rely on the river to transport goods, including Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. and American Electric Power Co., may see a decline in their cargo shipments.

“I thought it was a reach to get water off the Missouri,” AEP's Hettel said. “Industry knows what they're facing and we were just looking for more options.”

Without rain, the river at St. Louis is forecast to reach its lowest level since 1940 by the first of the year. Shippers are urging immediate action because any water released from the Missouri River takes about two weeks to raise the level of the Mississippi, according to the Waterways Council Inc., based in Arlington, Virginia.

The industry group estimates about $7 billion in commodities travel on the river each December and January. A halt in traffic may affect more than 20,000 jobs, including dockworkers and coal miners, the council said.

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