MISSOURI BARGING BEGINS EARLY, BUT ANOTHER DROUGHT YEAR LIKELY

MISSOURI BARGING BEGINS EARLY, BUT ANOTHER DROUGHT YEAR LIKELY

Rains helped barge traffic get an early start on the Missouri River this month, but the man with his hands on the river's taps said disappointing upstream snowpack points to another year of drought curbs.

"This is looking like another drought year at this point - the sixth drought year in a row," said Duane Sveum, chief of the Missouri River reservoir control center for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Omaha, Neb.He said upper Rocky Mountain snows that feed the long river have been about 25 percent below normal, meaning less snow runoff as the weather heats up.

That in turn means not only another year in which the corps supplies minimum flows of about eight feet of water or a low 7 1/2 feet of barge cargo depth, but it also implies a month-early shutdown again next fall if conditions don't improve by June's midyear review.

The corps had committed to ease one drought curb by making sure the entire navigable part of the river would be open by April 1 instead of starting a week later as in recent years.

But bargemen took advantage of what nature provided to move earlier.

Roger Blaske, president of Blaske Marine Inc. in Alton, Ill., said one of his tugs entered the river March 10 at St. Louis and took a load to Kansas City, Mo., about halfway up the navigable part of the river.

That went well, and the same tug is now pushing a second tow loaded with fertilizer all the way to Sioux City, Iowa, at the northern end of the Missouri's barge channel, he said.

A second Blaske tug recently entered the river as well, aided by more rain last week and the start-up of corps releases from upstream dams.

Phoenix Towing Co. in St. Louis also put a boat on the river Friday to push fertilizer to Sioux City, said Don Huffman, executive vice president: ''We got some rain, the river's up, so we're going to sneak in a little early."