“We can’t say everything is being threatened, but there’s some amount of risk to those jobs,” Pollet said.
More than a quarter of all commodities that Illinois sells go down the river and 5 percent of its imports go up, said Ann Schneider, secretary of the state’s Department of Transportation.
On the one hand, Gov. Pat Quinn (D) and Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) pressed the corps to do everything in its power to keep the water level above eight feet, prompting a plan to remove rocks late this month to be moved up.
On the other hand, Quinn has ordered his administration to line up more rail cars and trucks in case the worst happens. A tugboat hauling 15 barges carries as much freight as more than 200 rail cars or 1,000 trucks.
The stage was set for record-low water levels in the summer, during the great drought. More than three-fifths of the contiguous United States — the District and portions of Virginia and Maryland included — were struck by moderate drought or worse, the most extensive dry spell since 1956 and comparable to the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s.
The National Weather Service in Louisiana forecast then that the lack of rain would persist and predicted low flows on the Mississippi River.
David Gay, an Illinois family farmer with 1,500 acres in the Mississippi Valley, 90 miles north of St. Louis, lost half his corn crop in the drought. He was happy that the Army Corps kept the river open so that his grain could move to the purchaser, a Japanese importer.
But now Gay is worried that the river will be too low for boats to bring the fertilizer he needs to prepare his land in March for planting. “I think there was more fertilizer applied in fall than usual because some people are worried about that. I know we did,” Gay said.
The shallow Mississippi “is a concern that could turn into a crisis down the road,” said Gay, whose farm is on its banks.
“If you don’t live near the river system and see how important it is as far as commerce, it’s easy to forget about it, and what it means to the middle part of the country,” he said.