* Rock removal near Thebes and Grand Tower, IL, completed
* Corps to remove more rock if funds, river conditions allow
Feb 28 (Reuters) - Barge shipping on the middle Mississippi River returned to normal on Thursday for the first time since December as rain and snow-melt revived the drought-hit waterway and government engineers completed a two-month riverbed rock removal project.
The worst U.S. drought in a half century sapped the major shipping artery and fueled concerns that barge shipments of billions of dollars in commodities such as grain, coal and fertilizer could come to a halt.
The Mississippi River, which links Midwest farms with grain export terminals at the Gulf Coast, fell to near historic lows this winter but, apart from rolling closures around dredging and rock removal work zones, was never closed due to low water.
"A tremendous amount of effort now and in the years leading up to this drought has gone into keeping the river open," said Col. Chris Hall, St. Louis District Commander.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in the largest such undertaking in at least 25 years, blasted and removed about 1,000 cubic yards of underwater rock that threatened low-water navigation near the Illinois towns of Thebes and Grand Tower.
Nearly round-the-clock dredging operations also removed more than 8 million cubic yards of sediment between July and February to maintain a nine-foot-deep shipping channel needed by most commercial barge tow boats, the Corps said in a release.
The Coast Guard directed commercial traffic during the rock removal project and passed a total 2,124 vessels towing 13,206 barges through the Thebes and Grand Tower area. There were no groundings in the navigation channel, the Coast Guard said.