AGRICULTURE trade on the mighty Mississippi River in the US could grind to a halt next week, due to falling water levels.
It has prompted calls for US President Barack Obama to issue a presidential declaration of emergency in an attempt to keep the multi-billion dollar shipping industry afloat.
American Farm Bureau congressional relations director Andrew Walmsley today told Weekly Times Now severe drought had taken its toll on a 320km stretch of the Mississippi between St Louis in Missouri and Cairo in Illinois.
He said it could force river trade in the region to shut down as early as next Monday or Tuesday.
"Our barges that require a nine-foot draft of water depth won't be able to navigate,'' Mr Walmsley said.
"We've obviously had a very severe drought that we're still feeling the impacts of from summer, and continued into the fall and winter, and with that there's basically not enough water on the Mississippi.
"Just a little over a year ago we had flooding issues and now we have drought.''
Washington DC-based Mr Walmsley said a shut down of the river trade during December and January could potentially cost $7 billion, 20,000 jobs and $130 million in lost wages.
He said about 300 million bushels of grain worth about US$2 billion would "have issue getting down the river to their intended destination''.
"(The impact is) going to be widespread - Illinois, Missouri, Iowa all the way down the river to Louisiana to the ports that export those grains that would be coming down the river, the fertiliser manufacturers that would be loading barges to send back up the river,'' Mr Walmsley said.
The Farm Bureau has called on President Obama to direct the US Army Corp of Engineers to immediately remove rock pinnacles along the river and release enough water from Missouri River reservoirs to preserve a nine-foot navigation channel on the Mississippi.
"There is some specific action that we can do now to keep the river open and then basically pray for some rain and snowmelt to help refill some reservoirs, the tributaries and eventually the river,'' Mr Walmsley said.
"What we're asking is don't do a whole-hearted release - we understand there's other uses - but a moderated, common-sense flow to get an extra couple of feet of river depth in the meantime until the rain comes.''
Mr Walmsley said should trade be shut down it would be the first time "since the time of Huck Finn''.
"I believe we came close in 1988 with the drought we had then but the rain fortunately came,'' he said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Obama had raised the issue with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and "remains very concerned about the devastating impact of the drought''.
"And going back to the summer, the President, directed the administration to take every step within our authority to mitigate the damage caused by the drought, and the Army Corps has taken proactive action over the time to ensure navigability of the river system,'' Mr Carney said.
"However, we also share the specific concerns from lawmakers and others about the decreasing water level of the Mississippi. And while there is a complex set of legal technical and policy questions around these issues, we are exploring all possible options.''