MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - Nearly 100 boats and barges were waiting for passage Monday along an 11-mile stretch of the Mississippi River that has been closed due to low water levels.
New Orleans-based U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Ryan Tippets said the stretch of river near Greenville, Miss., has been closed intermittently since Aug. 11, when a vessel ran aground.
Tippets said the area is currently being surveyed for dredging and a Coast Guard boat is replacing eight navigation markers. He says 40 northbound vessels and 57 southbound vessels were stranded and waiting for passage Monday afternoon.
Tippets said it is not immediately clear when the river will re-open. A stretch of river near Greenville was also closed in 1988 due to low water levels caused by severe drought. The river hit a record low on the Memphis gauge that year.
The Mississippi River from Illinois to Louisiana has seen water levels plummet due to drought conditions in the past three months. Near Memphis, the river level was more than 12 feet lower than normal for this time of year.
Maintaining the navigation channel is essential to keeping vessels from colliding or running aground. Thousands of tons of material are shipped on the river each day.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is using dredges to dig out sand and ensure the navigation channel is deep enough for barges loaded with coal, steel, agricultural products and other goods. The corps is required to provide a minimum navigation channel that is 9 feet deep and 300 feet wide on the lower Mississippi River.
Shippers who move material up and down the river on a daily basis have complained that the shallow river is forcing them to lighten the loads on their barges to avoid hitting bottom. Lighter loads mean less revenue for the shippers, who still have to deal with costs such as labor and fuel.
Also, low water at docks and terminals makes it more difficult to load or unload material, as ships have trouble getting close enough to docks.
The record for the lowest measured water level for the Mississippi River near Memphis is minus-10.7 feet, in 1988. The river is not expected to reach record lows.
"If we lose the river system it's just like losing the interstate highway system," Segree said. "Commerce is a vital part of our nation. This is a main artery for commerce."