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Experts disagree on Missouri River barge resurgence lying ahead

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MITCHELL, S.D. - Two river experts disagree on whether the recent let-up of a dry cycle will lead to an upswing in barge traffic along the lower Missouri River.

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There could be a lot riding on who's right, because a resurgence of the downstream barge industry might hurt efforts to retain more water in upstream reservoirs for recreational and other uses.

John LaRandeau, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Omaha District, said the end of a drought cycle last year means there will likely be more water to release from upstream dams. That would help downstream barge operators, who could then increase their "draft" -- the amount of barge below the water -- and ship bigger loads.

Larandeau said an extra foot of draft is needed for barges on the Missouri.

"What they need is the lakes to fill up and the corps to provide what we call full-service navigation flows from the dams," LaRandeau said, "and that would add that foot back in, and they'll come back then, because the profit is there."

LaRandeau said 2006 was one of the worst years for the Missouri River barge industry, in part because of drought conditions that contributed to some operators going out of business. The industry has rebounded slightly since then with an increase of about 50,000 tons, LaRandeau said, "and we expect the same thing happening this year -- maybe more."

John Cooper, former secretary of the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks and a recent chairman of the Missouri River Association of State and Tribes, disagrees. He said drought conditions are not over.

"Just because we have had one year in which we gained some water in the system doesn't mean that magically we have broken this drought," Cooper said. "One year a drought buster does not make."

Even if the drought is over, Cooper said, dry periods will return. He said Missouri River barge operators will never have the extended periods of favorable water flows that they need to sustain their businesses.

Statements to the contrary amount to "supposition," Cooper said.

"The Missouri River, since the construction of these dams, has never supported a viable navigation shipping industry."

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