By Karl Plume
(Reuters) - Barge shipping on the Illinois River and parts of the Mississippi River will remain impeded until at least early next week as the flood-swollen waterways slowly recede from record- or near-record-high crests, according to the U.S. Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers.
But the date when barge shipments of grain can again move freely from production areas in the Midwest to export facilities at the Gulf of Mexico may be pushed back as another storm system moved through the region on Tuesday.
The Army Corps closed 10 locks on the Mississippi River and four on the Illinois River late last week and although the rivers have crested at most locations, the majority remain closed.
Meanwhile, record flooding prompted the Coast Guard to close the Illinois River to all commercial and recreational traffic on Monday to safeguard levees protecting several towns including Peoria, where the river crested at a record 29.35 feet on Tuesday.
"The water is within two to three feet of the top in most areas, but the levees are in good shape," said Mike Zerbonia, Peoria flood area engineer and Illinois Waterway operations manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"The Coast Guard has completely shut down the river. There are no barges moving and no recreational boats moving until the water recedes to a safe operational level," he said.
The closure stretched from mile marker 79.5 near Beardstown, Illinois, to river mile 285 near Joliet.
Starved Rock lock on the Illinois remained closed due to high water, but two others that were closed last week, the Dresden Island and T.J. O'Brien locks, reopened on Monday.
Marseilles lock remained closed as crews worked to remove seven barges that broke away from a tow in strong currents last Thursday and struck the dam, damaging some lock gates.
Navigation was halted on the Mississippi River from central Iowa nearly to St. Louis as high water forced the closure of locks 16 through 25 late last week and over the weekend.
The latest National Weather Service river forecasts suggest the last of those locks could reopen between April 29 and May 1.
The Coast Guard reopened the Mississippi to two-way traffic late on Monday near St. Louis and near Vicksburg, Mississippi. Two separate incidents of barges breaking loose in heavy currents over the weekend had forced temporary closures that backed up hundreds of barges.
Swift currents prompted the Coast Guard to restrict the number of barges that each tow boat was allowed to push on the lower Mississippi to a maximum of 36 barges.
Grain export prices climbed as the shipping disruptions severed the farm-to-port supply pipeline for shippers at the Gulf of Mexico.
Some 60 percent of U.S. grain exports, as well as various other commodities, including oil, coal and fertilizer, are shipped via the Mississippi River system.
Spot corn prices at the Gulf hovered near the highest level in a month while soybean prices held at a three-month high as exporters scrambled for needed supplies.
(Reporting by Karl Plume in Chicago; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)