NATCHEZ, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi and Louisiana officials are telling people to say off sandbars that have appeared with the low-water levels along the Mississippi River.
U.S. Coast Guard Master Chief Randy Merrick tells the Natchez Democrat (http://bit.ly/OGdRSP) that differentiating between the bottom of the river and a recently exposed sandbar is difficult.
"These sandbars just drop off at some point," Merrick said. "They don't really fade out gradually like most people think they do — they just drop, so it's kind of deceiving. And just because the river levels are low, doesn't mean the river doesn't have a current."
Adams County Emergency Management Director Stan Owens said no incidents involving residents, or barges, affected by the river at Natchez have occurred yet, but that shouldn't lower the threat of something occurring.
"These sandbars essentially build up on top of an underwater river channel, so they can collapse at any time," Owens said. "People just need to be careful at all times when dealing with the river."
Across the river from Natchez in Vidalia, La., Mayor Hyram Copeland said residents who venture out onto sandbars or close to the river present a safety issue.
"We've told people not to come on the sand areas near the riverfront because it could collapse, and it's an extremely dangerous factor," Copeland said. "It's a verbal warning right now, but if residents don't comply, we'll start writing tickets.
"I don't want to lose any lives like that."
The National Weather Service said river levels at Natchez and Vidalia are projected to reach 10 feet in August — with lower levels possible in September.
"Without any significant rainfall, the river levels at Natchez could drop below the 10-foot mark," meteorologist Latrice Maxie said. "Natchez isn't as low as some of the other areas to the north, but the levels will continue to fall in these hot and dry months." With the river this low, the channels are shallower and narrower, presenting problems for barges and pedestrians thinking they can get an up-close perspective of the river.
"Anything that's been traditionally covered or underwater for the good part of this year, I would be concerned with people stepping out on," Maxie said. "Those areas are highly unpredictable."
Merrick said restrictions are placed on the amount of cargo a barge can carry to restrict its tow depth during the low river levels.
"The barges are drafting 9-1/2 feet (tow) instead of normally drafting 12 feet (tow)," Merrick said. "We're also having to move the buoys farther away from shore to give the mariners a channel.
"The boats are running a little slower, but it's more so they don't get stuck on the sandbars," Merrick said. "The mariners know the river is low, and they're driving slow and taking their time."
Information from: The Natchez Democrat, http://www.natchezdemocrat.com/
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.