Several companies that operate barges on the drought-stricken Mississippi River have asked Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear to intervene by calling for a presidential disaster declaration.
The companies said doing so could be a first step in getting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release water from the Missouri River to improve the flow of the Mississippi.
Crounse Corp., Marquette Transportation Co., AEP River Operations, James Marine and Ingram Barge Co. made the appeal in a Dec. 20 letter because of delays in barge traffic. On the day the letter was penned, company officials said 15 towboats were waiting to travel an especially shallow portion of the Mississippi.
"Barges are being loaded to less than full capacity and configured in smaller tow sizes in order to navigate through the restricted channel," they wrote.
Beshear has declined to ask for a presidential disaster declaration. Instead, he has called on U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to sponsor legislation that would force the Army Corps of Engineers to release water from dams on the Missouri River to raise the water level on the Mississippi.
Beshear, a Democrat, made the request in a letter to McConnell and the state's other Republican U.S. senator, Rand Paul, asking them to act quickly.
McConnell and Paul had warned earlier this month week of potentially negative economic consequences if the water level on the Mississippi River continues to fall. They said in a letter to Beshear that commercial traffic on the river could "come to a complete halt in coming days" unless the Corps takes action to increase the water flow.
The senators described the diminishing water levels on the river as a looming crisis that could affect Kentucky's shipping, agriculture and manufacturing sectors. They urged him to seek a federal disaster declaration, an action that Beshear said "is not applicable to the situation at this time."
Beshear said the Corps, acting at his request and the requests of officials in other affected states, has expedited a contract to demolish rock formations that could cause a bottleneck for shipping on the river. He said he also has been in discussions with Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon as well as the Corps about the "potential navigation crisis."
Anxious leaders of barge companies called for hasty action.
"We implore you to actively re-examine all possible options that may be available to you in order to develop a workable solution to this matter," they wrote.
Also, Kentucky transportation officials say the Dorena-Hickman ferry connecting Kentucky and Missouri -- the only direct route between the two states -- is closed today.
The ferry carries vehicles over the Mississippi River between Kentucky 1354 in Hickman and Missouri Route A and Route 77 near Dorena. The Kentucky Department of Transportation says the closure is due to high winds and ice on the landing ramps. The area is under a blizzard warning.