Most people are well aware that Mother Nature can cause trouble for crops, but few make the connection between the effects of rain or drought on major rivers and how that can also be a disaster for farmers and ranchers who rely on the inland waterways system to get their products to key international markets.

In late 2011, Mississippi River levels and those of many of its tributaries were close to record highs, but the summer 2012 drought that scorched the Midwest had the Mississippi running so extremely low this January that barge operators were worried they wouldn't be able to float their loads up and down the river. At the time, getting crops down the river wasn't the only concern for farmers, they were also anxious about inputs like fertilizer making it north in time to prep for spring planting.

 

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In fact, Mississippi River levels were so low near Thebes, Ill., that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers early this year was compelled to blast away rock pinnacles in an effort to keep that critical part of the river deep enough for barges.

A few short months later, in April, farmers, barge operators and area residents and officials were once again watching the Mississippi, Missouri and other rivers, as they swelled to dangerous levels after heavy Midwestern rains. In early May, flood warnings were in place for rivers in Missouri, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa.

Plan needed to manage shipping arteries

While the Army Corps of Engineers and all those involved in waterway transport do their best to handle the rising and sinking water levels, there is no plan in place to manage these vital shipping arteries. However, a bill introduced in the House, the Mississippi River Navigation Sustainment Act (H.R. 1152), would help maintain the critical movement of goods during periods of extreme weather.

"Whether it is low water conditions or devastating floods, we need to be proactive in planning and preparing to keep the Mississippi River open for commerce," American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman wrote in a letter to the bill's sponsors, Reps. Bill Enyart (D-Ill.) and Rodney Davis (R-Ill.).

Farmers and ranchers support the legislation as part of a comprehensive effort-like the Water Resources Development Act recently passed by the Senate-to ensure an efficient and reliable inland waterways system linked to competitive ports. Without such a system, producers would be hard-pressed to provide affordable agricultural products to U.S. consumers and those in other countries.

Stallman praised Enyart and Davis' bill, saying it will improve the understanding of the Mississippi River system while giving the Corps more flexibility to deal with extreme weather events through better water management, improved river forecasting and more effective environmental management.

The legislation would provide more automated gauges and increase the use of other river level forecasting tools, which would help river users make more informed business decisions.

The bill would also authorize the Corps to conduct a study of how to better coordinate management of the entire Mississippi River Basin during periods of extreme weather. The study would include recommendations on improving the management of the basin for navigation and flood risk management, taking into account the effect the management of the entire basin has on the Mississippi River.

In addition, the measure would give the Corps more authority to ensure sufficient depths in fleeting areas and maintain access to docks, loading facilities and other critical infrastructure.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has introduced a companion bill (S. 565) in the Senate. Much of Durbin's legislation was incorporated into the Senate-passed WRDA bill.

 

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