After several months of feverishly working to keep barge traffic flowing on the Mississippi River, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Tuesday that it has ceased dredging operations.
"We're basically at a point now that we're confident, with the rain we've had, that we have the channel we need to get through the winter," Corps of Engineers spokesman Mike Petersen said. "We've had them out there for a long time and it's time to get (the dredges) in for some maintenance."
According to the Corps of Engineers, dredges have removed about 8 million cubic yards of sediment in the river channel to try to keep barges moving during historically low river levels in recent months.
The river reached more than 4 feet below normal depth in St. Louis and barge companies were forced to carry lighter loads so they didn't hit bottom. For a while it seemed that the river would threaten its all-time low of 6.2 feet below normal set in 1940.
According to the National Weather Service, as of Tuesday afternoon the river was at 2.2 feet above normal at St. Louis. While that's good news here, the water added by recent rain and snow is causing problems about 100 miles to the south where workers are trying to remove rock pinnacles from the river bottom at Thebes and Grand Tower.
Work there has had to be halted because water is too deep to do the job.
Water levels are "a double-edged sword," Petersen said. "One of the reasons crews were able to make such quick progress at Thebes is because the river was so low. Now the water is up, which makes things better in general. But it's causing problems with the rock removal."
According to the National Weather Service, the river should start to fall again and reach the normal level by Friday. That would allow workers to get back on the job with the pinnacle removal. But rain expected Thursday could throw crews a curve.
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Colin Fogarty said the rain has certainly helped the low water situation at least temporarily. Last week the Coast Guard moved navigation buoys to widen the river channel back to normal after months of being forced to narrow it. But he said unless we continue to get consistent rain, low water could continue to be a problem into the summer.