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Last updated: February 19. 2013 6:48PM - 97 Views

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ST. LOUIS — The Army Corps of Engineers on Friday began reducing the flow from a Missouri River reservoir, a move expected to worsen low water conditions on the Mississippi River and potentially bring barge traffic to a halt within weeks.


One result of this year's drought, the worst in decades, has been a big drop in water levels on both the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.


The Corps of Engineers office in Omaha, Neb., announced earlier this month plans to reduce the outflow from the Gavins Point Dam near Yankton, S.D. Corps spokeswoman Monique Farmer told The Associated Press that the reduction began as scheduled Friday morning. By late-morning, the flow that had started at 37,500 cubic feet per second had been cut to 35,500 cubic feet per second.


Farmer said plans call for a gradual reduction down to 12,000 cubic feet per second by Dec. 11.


It's just an extended period of drought, and that forecast is expected to persist into the spring, Farmer said.


The Mississippi is nearing historic lows between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill. Barges are already required to carry lighter loads and the middle of the river could be closed to barge traffic if the water level at St. Louis dips below minus 5 feet. It was at minus 0.45 feet Friday.


A zero river reading at St. Louis was established more than a century ago. It's the point at which people thought the river would never drop below.


Barge operators and those who ship on the Mississippi have warned that stopping barge traffic would risk economic catastrophe for coal, agriculture, petroleum and other interests. Some companies have said they may have to lay off workers if barge traffic is halted for any significant amount of time.


Barges carry 20 percent of the country's coal and more than 60 percent of its grain exports. Other cargo — such as petroleum products, lumber, sand, industrial chemicals and fertilizer — also gets shipped along the Mississippi River.


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