"Until Congress gives a higher priority to the nation's great rivers, and acts as a referee among competing interests, all of us will pay," the editorial read.

The stakes are especially high in St. Louis. The region is home to several barge companies, two of the nation's largest coal companies and countless other businesses that use the Mississippi to move their products both for domestic and international use.

Knight Hawk Coal Co. of the St. Louis-area town of Percy, Ill., uses the river to ship 80 percent of the 4.5 million tons of the black ore it bores out of southern Illinois mines each year. Closure of the river could force the company to consider something it's never done â¿¿ part with some of its 400 employees.

"If they were to close the river for any significant period, I think we would have to be in a position where we'd have to look at layoffs," said Andrew Carter, a company vice president. "... Level heads need to prevail, and this river needs to stay open."

Commerce on the river always has been subject to nature's whims â¿¿ ice and floods, in addition to drought, can stop river traffic.

Locks and dams built along the upper Mississippi River starting in the 1930s have helped balance the ups and downs of the waterway. Also, the corps spends months each year dredging the river bottom, adding depth so barges don't scrape. Dredging in the middle-Mississippi began a month early, in July, because of the drought, said Mike Petersen of the corps office in St. Louis.

The corps also plans to use explosives to remove two rock formations on the river bottom in southern Illinois that can impede barges during low-water periods, though that work isn't expected to start until February.

Trade groups for river interests are asking Barack Obama's administration for a presidential declaration that would force the corps to maintain the existing Missouri River flow and expedite removal of the rock formations.

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