Drought plagues boat traffic on Mississippi River

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Shipping resumed last week through one of the Mississippi River's busiest locks after crews completed emergency repairs that took days and stranded hundreds of barges destined for points north or south.

By the time the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reopened Lock 27 at Granite City, Ill., just north of St. Louis, on Thursday, the Coast Guard said the traffic jam had grown to 63 vessels and 455 barges — carrying enough cargo to fill 6,100 railcars or 26,400 large tractor-trailers, according to the Associated Press.

Within a few hours of the lock being back in business, just six vessels pushing 80 barges had made it through the lock. The last of the idled barges was expected to clear that vital Mississippi River corridor by today, Coast Guard Lt. Colin Fogarty told the AP.

Workers closed the lock on Sept. 15 after discovering that a protection cell — a rock-filled steel cylinder against which barges rub to help align them for proper entry into the lock — had split open, spilling enough of the rock into the river to obstruct passage.

That damage was on an unarmored section of the vertical protection cell that the barges don’t typically make contact with because they’re often 15 to 20 feet under water. But that portion has been exposed because the river’s level has been lowered dramatically by the nation’s drought, Mike Petersen, a Corps of Engineers spokesman, told the AP.

The lingering drought has made the Mississippi narrower, leaving towboat pilots struggling to find a safe place to park their barges as they waited out the repairs.

The trouble at Lock 27 is the latest barge-related headache brought on by the nation’s worst drought in decades. Just a year since the Mississippi rose in some places to record levels, traffic along the river, sometimes resembling a slow-motion freeway, at times has been brought to a crawl, if not a congested mess.

Several lower stretches have been closed, and barges have run aground. At other times, towboat pilots have had to wait at narrower channels for a barge to pass through in the opposite direction before easing their own way through snarling traffic.

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