ST. LOUIS - The U.S. Senate is launching a bipartisan Mississippi River Caucus in an effort to encourage commerce and address issues such as flood mitigation and navigation concerns, two senators said Thursday.
Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri and Democrat Tom Harkin of Iowa announced plans for the caucus that also will seek to help communities along the nation's longest waterway.
The caucus will bring together leaders from the 10 Mississippi River states to encourage navigation, promote commerce and prevent destructive floods, Blunt said.
"The Mississippi River is a vital artery of commerce for hundreds of millions of tons of agriculture goods and other products that are important to our national economy," Blunt said in a statement. "We must work to maintain the river channel, which has a critical impact on jobs, income to many businesses and farmers, and the economy of the region as a whole."
Harkin said a vital lesson was learned from the low-water concerns that began last fall, the result of months of drought in the Midwest. Barge traffic has been restricted in the middle Mississippi River, but so far, the river has remained open.
The U.S. Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers have said a complete shutdown is unlikely. Recent rains in the Midwest have boosted the level of the river, though it remains far below normal in the nearly 200-mile stretch from St. Louis to the southern tip of Illinois.
Harkin noted the vital importance of the river to the communities that sit along its banks.
"The Mississippi River Caucus will look at ways that the Congress can be helpful to the cities and towns along the river to improve their economies and their quality of life, and to better respond to floods and other threats," he said in a statement.
The Missouri River is governed in part by something known as the Missouri River Master Manual, a Congressionally-authorized document that requires the Army Corps of Engineers to take measures in the best interest of the Missouri River without consideration of the impact on the Mississippi. The Mississippi River has no such documented guidance.
The river shipping industry and several politicians from states on the Mississippi River were critical of the strict adherence to the Missouri River Master Manual last fall when the corps reduced water releases from an upper Missouri River dam. The reduced flow made the already-low Mississippi River even lower.
Massive dredging, rock removal and other efforts over the past three months kept the Mississippi open to barge traffic.
In other years, the opposite problem has been common: Flooding. Some areas along the Mississippi had record flooding as recently as spring 2011.