The Mississippi River is in serious trouble – about 60% of the Midwest and northern Great Plain states are in a drought condition. Nearly the entire stretch of the Mississippi River — from Minnesota to the river’s mouth in Louisiana — has experienced below average rainfall over the past two months. As a result, water levels on the river have dropped to near-record lows, disrupting shipping and barge traffic critical for moving recently harvested agricultural goods such as soybeans and corn downriver for export.
Weather experts believe the drought is more likely a short-term weather phenomenon, although many scientists blame climate change as the culprit. In recent months, lower water levels have revealed parts of the Mississippi that are usually inaccessible.
Photo Credit: Jeff Roberson/AP Photo
Thousands of visitors just weekends ago, walked across the riverbed in Tennessee to Tower Rock, a protruding formation about 100 miles southeast of St. Louis (pictured above). It’s the first time that tourists could make this trek and stay dry.
On the border of Tennessee and Missouri, where the river is a half-mile wide, four-wheeler tracks can be seen snaking across vast stretches of the exposed riverbed. The “mighty” Mississippi moves more than half of our U.S. grain exports but this drought has reduced the flow of goods by about 45%, according to industry estimates cited by the federal government.
Barges are at risk of hitting bottom and getting stuck in the mud. In October, the U.S. Coast Guard said there had been at least eight “groundings”. Some barges touch the bottom but don’t get stuck while others need salvage companies to get them out. Barges are being cautioned to lighten their loads to prevent them from sinking too deep in the water, but that means they can carry fewer goods. Under these conditions, federal officials regularly meet to consider the river’s depth and talk with the shipping industry to determine local closures and traffic restrictions. At times, these temporary closures have resulted in hundreds of barges lined up waiting to move onward.
“It’s very dynamic: Things are changing constantly,” said Eric Carrero, the Coast Guard’s director of western rivers and waterways. “Every day, when we are doing our surveys, we’re finding areas that are shallow and they need to dredge.”
From the electrical power perspective, these drought conditions could present some additional concerns since a total of 7,670 MW could be affected. The Mississippi River is 2,340 miles long and has 703 dams but only 20 conventional hydro-power plants with a total capacity of 395 MW. Eight of these dams are managed by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, while the remaining are owned and operated by private companies or municipalities. In addition, there are six nuclear power plants that use the Mississippi River for cooling water – Prairie Island, Monticello, Quad Cities, Grand Gulf, River Bend, and Waterford 3 – with a total capacity of 7,275 MW.
Picture of the Diamond Lady – Casino Boat – stranded in Memphis
Photo Credit: Lucy Garrett for the New York Times
Picture of the Carrollton Gauge on the Mississippi River in New Orleans.
Photo Credit: Chris Granger, The New Orleans Times-Picayune, courtesy of the University of Missouri Ag & Water Desk