The coming new year brings intensified shipping difficulties for barge operators on the stretch of the Mississippi River just south of St. Louis. With ice on the river’s northernmost stretch reducing water levels already seriously affected by the drought, traffic on the nation’s largest waterway could come to a halt by Friday of next week.

“While the drought is at the core of the current issues on the Mississippi, this situation also highlights the dire need for infrastructure improvements,” said National Corn Growers Association Chairman Garry Niemeyer, a grower from Auburn, Ill. “At NCGA, we have been pushing for upgrades the locks and dams since 1993, but our federal government has failed to respond. If we continue to ignore our infrastructure, we will lose valuable markets.”

Persistent drought has already caused the river to reach low-water points not seen in decades. Despite efforts to keep the waterway open for commerce, such as releasing water reserves from Carlyle Lake, the Army Corps of Engineers expects that new limitations on river traffic will go into place when the river level is projected to drop to three feet at the gauge in Thebes, Ill. on Jan.7. A three-foot gauge in Thebes equates to a ten-oot deep channel, or a nine-foot operating draft on barges.

The National Weather Service’s long-range forecast does not indicate any relief in the near future. Instead, predictions indicate that river levels will continue to fall, causing the river gauge at Thebes to reach one (indicating an eight-foot depth) on Jan. 23.