As 2012 ended, the threat was that the Mississippi River might be so low in the mid-Mississippi section from St. Louis, Mo., to Cairo, Ill., that all barge shipping would have to be stopped by Jan. 7, but the Army Corps of Engineers has kept the river open and claims it will not shut down shipping on this section of the river in the future.

Shipping is extremely slow because the river is only open eight hours per day through this section of the river, and the U.S. Coast Guard is reportedly doing traffic cop duty by alternating one-way barge traffic during those eight hours.

Rumors about the river being completely shut down one week to the next continue. And the National Weather Service hydrologists reportedly last week added fuel to the fire in conjunction with the Associated Press. The news service quoted the hydrologists as saying the river near Thebes, Ill., could drop below a point that a lightly loaded barge would not be able to navigate the river section, effectively stopping commerce on the river by Jan. 11. 

“There’s nothing pretty about this,” Coast Guard Lt. Colin Fogarty was quoted by the Washington Post as saying Jan. 4. “We are facing a historic drought. River levels are at record lows we haven’t seen since 1941. Over six weeks, the Army Corps has dredged record amounts of the river.”

But, Fogarty also is quoted as saying that the Mississippi will close are as reliable as doomsday projections “based on the Mayan calendar.”

A news release from the Corps as of Jan. 3 starts with a strong statement about the river definitely staying open. “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continues to project river stages will sustain the authorized nine-foot deep commercial navigation channel between St. Louis, Mo., and Cairo, Ill. The Corps continues to apply all available capabilities and resources to keep the channel open.”

The Corps as of last week was somewhat optimistic that rain at runoff scale this week will hit the drainage area needed to help keep the river open.

“Additionally, the removal of rock obstructions will enable an approximately two-foot deeper channel in the Thebes reach of the river by January 11. Recent rains and water releases from the Corps’ Carlyle Lake in Illinois have improved the forecast for the Middle Mississippi River.

Based on the latest National Weather Service worst-case, "no rain" forecasts, river levels won’t reach five feet on the St. Louis gauge until mid-January. At that point, the rock formations at Thebes will be removed enough to prevent a negative impact to the 9-foot-deep navigation channel,” the Corps announced in its news release.

According to Mississippi Valley Division Commander, Maj. Gen. John Peabody, "The Corps' rock removal contractors are making excellent progress in removing the rock obstructions from the primary area of concern."

The Corps report is that contractors are removing an estimated 890 cubic yards of limestone from the river bottom primarily through excavation. This work addresses areas that are most negatively impacting navigation and shipping. But additional rock removal is planned for later in 2013.

"We believe we will deepen the channel ahead of the worst-case river stage scenario, and I remain confident that navigation will continue," Peabody said.