RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The mighty Mississippi is one of the longest rivers in the country and at certain points it reaches more than 100 feet down. But there is one point on the river that is now so shallow it's virtually impossible for any vessel to get through. The Army Corps of Engineers is working very day this month to get this shipping channel between St. Louis and Cairo, Illinois open. But the only real way to get the Mississippi's water level back up is to take water from the Missouri River. As Jacob McCleland of member station KRCU reports, that won't be an easy thing to do.
JACOB MCCLELAND, BYLINE: General John Peabody zooms across the Mississippi River on a survey boat near the tiny southern Illinois town of Thebes on a cold January afternoon. It's the rockiest, most shallow stretch of the river, and it's now the pinch point in the Army Corps of Engineers' fight to keep navigation open on the river.
GENERAL JOHN PEABODY: And what we're looking at here is pretty amazing to me. It is solid rock outcrops. It almost looks like lava flows that stopped as they were flowing toward the shoreline, and it's a very narrow section of the river here.
MCCLELAND: About 30 yards away, a backhoe perched on top of a stationary barge swoops its bucket downward to break apart underwater rocks on the river's bed. Next to the backhoe are piles of rock - some small, some as big as a car - that have been scooped out of the water. It's a weird sight here on the river, but it's one that General Peabody finds encouraging. They're removing these rocks, in some cases by blasting them to bits, in a desperate attempt to give this section of the river two additional feet of depth, just enough to keep navigation possible.
PEABODY: We think through the month of January we're probably going to be in pretty good shape between the combination of the weather and the rock removal.
MCCLELAND: There's good news and bad news here. The good news is, there's been some rain in the Midwest and historical trends say river levels typically bottom out in January before rising in February. But the bad news is if that doesn't happen this year, the Corps is running out of options. The Corps is already releasing water from Carlyle Lake in southern Illinois, but that's the last reservoir left for the Corps to tap. The biggest kahuna is the Missouri River, the longest river in the country - it runs through or touches seven states and is the Mississippi's biggest tributary, but it's off limits.
JOHN THORSON: The Corps is sort of caught in the crosshairs here of a lot of competing interests in the Missouri.
MCCLELAND: That's John Thorson, a water law attorney who has long studied the Missouri River. The Corps cannot legally release water from the Missouri to benefit navigation on the Mississippi. Under a 1940s-era flood control law, the Missouri is only managed for a handful of uses like recreation, water supplies, hydropower and Missouri River navigation. Putting that Missouri River water on the Mississippi puts those uses at risk. The drought scorched both the Mississippi and Missouri River basins. About 20 percent of the Missouri River's storage capacity for a 12-year flood has already been used up.
THORSON: It's going to be a dry year, and there might even be reductions in some of the authorized purposes on the Missouri, such as navigation. So, even within the basin itself, there's going to be impacts.
MCCLELAND: John Thorson says the president might be able to use emergency powers to release Missouri River water or Congress could pass some new legislation, but those moves would be extremely unpopular with Missouri River states. Back at Thebes, Army Corps of Engineers Commanding General Thomas Bostick says President Obama is aware of the Mississippi River situation and all options are on the table, including the Missouri River water. But he says the Corps is already releasing more Missouri River water from its reservoirs than it normally would, just to meet water demands on that river.
COMMANDING GENERAL THOMAS BOSTICK: There's a lot of second, third order effects; there's a lot of interests, whether it's hydropower, ecosystems, the environment, water supply, navigation. All of those purposes are important for us to look at and the impact of one over the other.
MCCLELAND: What everybody needs here is more rain. With regular rainfall, everything will go back to normal. If the drought persists, though, we'll be talking about river problems - and water fights - for a long, long time. For NPR News, I'm Jacob McCleland in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.