Blasting the Mississippi

While river-related news in Australia has been dominated by the Murray-Darling basin, a major river management crisis has been unfolding in the USA’s iconic Mississippi River.

Like any Australian with a modicum of interest in the news it was hard to miss the unfolding tragedy of Hurricane Sandy as it devastated the north-eastern United States. What hasn’t made the news here is the more slowly unfolding saga in the mid-west. The headline that really captured my attention on November 30 was U.S. Ready to Blast River Rocks to Aid Barges: Harkin.

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Tower Rock in the Mississippi River

How to justify this rather extreme form of channel modification? It seems that while the north-east has been battered by storms, elsewhere the US has been experiencing its most severe and extensive drought in at least 25 years. This has resulted in low water levels in the Mississippi, limiting the ability to ship cargo along the river. Spokespeople from the shipping industry have quoted impressive figures for the monetary impact on trade, power generation, loss of wages and jobs.

Releasing water from dams, particularly along the Missouri is another option. Clearly at a time when water is scarce that option is opposed by the upstream states. For them the water is valued for irrigation, municipal water supply and recreation.

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Calhoun Point Habitat Restoration and Enhancement Project. Photo: US Army Corps of Engineers

Environmental and cultural values haven’t featured strongly in the recent media debate. While the river has clearly suffered a range of impacts “its adjacent forests and wetlands provide important habitat for fish and wildlife and include the largest continuous system of wetlands in North America.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is a key player in this situation. They own and operate dams as well as operating and maintaining inland navigation channels. The Corps of Engineers have said no to releasing water from the Missouri because of significant negative effects including depleting drinking water supplies, loss of marine- wildlife habitat and higher bills for hydropower users. However, it seems blasting of rock pinnacles in the channel to aid barge traffic will go ahead.

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