Blocked Mississippi prepares to reopen to barge traffic

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It's possible that the Mississippi River could reopen to commercial river traffic by this weekend following one of the worst barge traffic stoppages in recent memory.

The Star Tribune reports that a 52-member crew from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been working to clear the river of silt, sediment and soil, which has been blocked to commercial traffic at the height of the river shipping season. The build-up was caused by high water and spring flooding.

ABC6 in Austin reports that in Winona and Wabasha, 17 tow boats and more than 150 barges remain stranded along the Upper Mississippi.

"We have people who have worked in the Corps since the late 1980's and they've never seen it where they've had so much sedimentation brought in that it shuts down large stretches of river like it did this time," George Stringham from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told the station.

The station said the flow of river traffic in those two areas could resume by Aug. 8. Corps of Engineers crews are also dredging near Red Wing and in northern Iowa and west-central Wisconsin.

The blockage in the critical shipping channel has taken an economic toll upriver in St. Paul where cargo transport has been stalled, according to the Star Tribune story.

“We have something like $50 million in commodities that are waiting to go,” said Lee Nelson, president of Upper River Services, which runs towboats in and out of St. Paul’s harbor.

Barges are one of the chief ways that cement and road salt are transported from the South. A shortage of cement could reverberate through the construction industry, and a reduced supply of road salt, already depleted from a last year's relentless winter, could hit many state and local agencies.

Meanwhile, as the fall harvest approaches, shippers need access to the river to transport tons of grain. An estimated 60 percent of all U.S. grain exports are shipped on the Mississippi through New Orleans and the Port of South Louisiana.

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