River running dry?

Published 11:27 pm Thursday, October 4, 2007

VIDALIA — It may seem like this year will be the one to see the Mississippi River dry up, but the river’s dropping levels are far from dry, officials said.

Vidalia Street Department Head Lee Staggs is in charge of setting the sign that displays the river levels on the Vidalia Riverfront.

In the three years he has been setting the sign, Staggs said he has only seen the river drop down to eight feet on the river gauge.

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All of the information about the river’s level in Vidalia is a reflection of data collected by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Staggs said.

“Everyone thinks the sign reads the river level by itself, but it’s like a sports board,” he said. “I tell it what level the river is at and whether or not it is going up or down.”

The gauge currently reads at 10.13 feet. Last year at this time the river stood at 27.02 feet, according to the Corps of Engineers.

The sign is not adjusted during weekends, Staggs said.

The corps used to read the river’s level by using a staff gauge, U.S. Army Corps Engineer Robert Simrall said.

“It was basically a board in the river with markings that someone would go out and read and then call in to tell us where the river stood,” he said.

The technology they use now is a little more sophisticated, Simrall said.

“We have a radar sensor that shoots a radar beam down to the water,” he said. “We know the distance between the sensor and the water, and so we can tell how much it has risen or dropped.”

The sensor’s computer system transmits the data to the corps office in Vicksburg every hour, and they disperse the data to the public from there, Simrall said.

When the computer reads the river’s level, it reads it in feet above 17.28 feet, Simrall said, so when the gauge reads the river as being 10.12 feet high, it is actually 10.12 feet plus 17.28 feet, making the river in reality 27.4 feet deep.

The corps of engineers tries to maintain a navigation channel of at least nine feet above 17.28 feet, Simrall said.

“We dredge at certain spots to keep that channel deep,” he said.

The river can drop several more feet before navigation will become a serious concern, Simrall said.

“Right now traffic is flowing fine,” he said. “We can handle it getting three or four feet lower.”