Mississippi River barge fight heats up

Published 10:45 am Friday, December 14, 2012

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Gov. Steve Beshear urged U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday to sponsor legislation that would force the Army Corps of Engineers to release water from dams on the Missouri River to raise the water level on the Mississippi River, where drought conditions could soon halt barge traffic.

Beshear, a Democrat, made the request in a letter to McConnell and the state’s other Republican U.S. senator, Rand Paul, asking them to act quickly.

“I also urged the corps to release waters from the Missouri River dams to benefit navigation on the Mississippi River,” Beshear said. “The corps’ position is that their Missouri River master manual does not allow this action, that their master manual has the force of law, and that congressional action would be necessary in order for the Corps to release water from the Missouri dams in this situation.”

Email newsletter signup

McConnell and Paul had warned last week of potentially negative economic consequences if the water level on the Mississippi River continues to fall. They said in a letter to Beshear that commercial traffic on the river could “come to a complete halt in coming days” unless the Corps takes action to increase the water flow.

The senators described the diminishing water levels on the river as “a looming crisis” that could affect Kentucky’s shipping, agriculture and manufacturing sectors. They urged him to seek a federal disaster declaration, an action that Beshear said “is not applicable to the situation at this time.”

In a statement Thursday night, McConnell’s office disagreed.

“Senator McConnell has heard from many Kentuckians in the shipping, agriculture, manufacturing, and energy sectors who will be adversely affected by this situation,” the statement said. “They believe the Governor’s power to request a federal disaster declaration from the President could remedy this situation and therefore Senators McConnell and Paul were happy to support their request. Unfortunately, the Governor has a different interpretation of his power to help them.”

Beshear said the Corps, acting at the request of him and officials in other affected states, has expedited the letting of a contract to demolish rock formations that could cause a bottleneck for shipping on the river.

The second-term governor said he has been in discussions with Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon as well as the Corps about the “potential navigation crisis.”

“I strongly urge you to assist the Corps of Engineers to address this serious issue by working with your colleagues in Congress to reauthorize the Water Resources Development Act, which has languished for years,” Beshear said in his letter. “Further, Congress should act to assist the corps in addressing the funding shortfalls that have hindered its ability to manage the infrastructure backlog on our nation’s waterways.”