ST. LOUIS — The gentle whir of passing barges is as much a part of life in St. Louis as the Gateway Arch and the Cardinals, a constant, almost soothing backdrop to a community intricately intertwined with the Mississippi River.
But next month, those barges packing such necessities as coal, farm products and petroleum could instead be parked along the river's banks. The stubborn drought that has gripped the Midwest for much of the year has left the Mighty Mississippi critically low — and it will get even lower if the Army Corps of Engineers presses ahead with plans to reduce the flow from a Missouri River dam.
Mississippi River interests fear the reduced flow will force a halt to barge traffic at the river's midpoint. They warn the economic fallout will be enormous, potentially forcing job cuts, raising fuel costs and pinching the nation's food supply.
"This could be a major, major impact at crisis level," said Debra Colbert, senior vice president of the Waterways Council, a public policy organization representing ports and shipping companies. "It is an economic crisis that is going to ripple across the nation at a time when we're trying to focus on recovery."