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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Barge traffic on the Mississippi River could grind to a halt in the next few days. Water levels on the nation's largest waterway are very low in certain parts of the river because of the most severe drought in decades. Mark Fletcher is the co-owner of Ceres Barge Line in East St. Louis and he joins us from KWMU. Welcome.

MARK FLETCHER: Hello. Welcome from the Gateway of the West.

WERTHEIMER: So how bad is it out there at the gateway?

FLETCHER: Well, you know, remarkably for the lack of moisture that we've had, the Corps of Engineers has done a fantastic job of keeping the channel open at a time when 30 days ago we would've predicted some real problems with only a max of 8-foot drafts. And it's not so much for the barges. We can make the barges any draft we need to. It's the towboats, the mainline hull towboats that very many of them can't transit in an 8-foot draft. They really need 9-foot plus to really get through up and down the river.

WERTHEIMER: So they - the barges, because they're flat on the bottom, if you just take some of the cargo off they ride high in the water and you can get through.

FLETCHER: That's correct.

WERTHEIMER: So are there parts of the river that can't handle this barge traffic now?

FLETCHER: No. The river's still open. There are some intermittent closures. We had two contractors on the scene at Thebes, Illinois as it's called, which is south of St. Louis about halfway down to Cairo, Illinois. And they're removing what has been referred to as rock pinnacles, rock boulders that are in the channel, that as the water levels go down will present themselves as a problem, a severe problem to anything that would come in contact with them.

WERTHEIMER: So has this kind of thing happened before, that the river has become impassable because of a lack of water?

FLETCHER: Well, to my knowledge the most severe low-water issue, or recorded, is back in the '40s in St. Louis. But in recent history, the drought of 1988 comes to mind at a time when we had severe shoaling issues and draft restrictions, Cairo and south as well as Cairo to St. Louis.

WERTHEIMER: So it's low but it's not impassable. Is that having an impact on your personal economy?

FLETCHER: Well, it does. It has financial impact. As a precaution, we've lowered to some 8-foot drafts from - now and again, then back to 9-foot drafts. About every foot of draft of ag products it probably costs us four to $6,000 in revenue.

WERTHEIMER: Is there really anything to solve this problem except maybe pray for rain?

(LAUGHTER)

FLETCHER: Well, a lot of good wishes for rain would be awfully helpful. And to have some of these fronts kind of push further north than they've been pushing in the last, oh, really the last year-and-a-half I guess, or last year.

WERTHEIMER: Well, Mr. Fletcher, thank you very much.

FLETCHER: Linda, you've done a great job. We appreciate it, and like you say, let's have everybody pray for a little rain.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Mark Fletcher is co-owner of the Ceres Barge Line in East St. Louis. This is NPR News.

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