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Trouble comes to the Mississippi from prolonged drought

Commerce threatened in the nation's busiest shipping channel

A boat pushes coal barges up the center of the Mississippi River after the water level dropped to near historical lows in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on October 18. For the second straight year the largest North American river has sunken to record low levels amid ongoing drought.
A boat pushes coal barges up the center of the Mississippi River after the water level dropped to near historical lows in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on October 18. For the second straight year the largest North American river has sunken to record low levels amid ongoing drought. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

An extended drought is causing low water levels in key shipping channels like the Mississippi River, and officials trying to address the problems say the fix is out of their hands.

“Rain across the Mississippi River Valley is really what we need, and in the Ohio River Valley, the Missouri River Valley,” Matt Roe, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, said this month.

But the National Weather Service is forecasting little to no rain and a continuing drop in water levels in the Lower Mississippi River until at least early December.

Heavy rains in the Midwest in late October did help raise water levels a few inches near Memphis, Tenn., but record low levels persist from there to New Orleans, affecting barges in the nation’s busiest shipping channel at a time when grains are being transported from farms across the heart of the country.

“Delays are the problem now,” said Tracy Zea, president and CEO of the Waterways Council, an industry group. “A lot is due to shutting down the channel for dredging to happen. The corps is doing an excellent job,” with 15 to 20 dredging operations going on almost daily in the lower half of the Mississippi.

Another big concern is that low water levels around New Orleans could allow saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico to intrude into the area’s drinking water supply. The Army Corps of Engineers has built an underwater dam called a sill to try to block the incursion, but the threat is likely to continue through the fall unless significant rainfall occurs, Roe said.

Similar problems occurred last fall, with the impacts of drought on the river estimated to be around $20 billion in economic losses in 2022, according to analysts for AccuWeather.

Zea said it is difficult to gauge the losses this year, since most shipments are eventually getting through, albeit in smaller loads on barges, and some farmers are diverting their grain to ethanol plants in the Midwest rather than sell them as exports.

Shippers don’t seem to be shifting goods from barges to trucks or rails, Zea said, because those modes have their own problems. “It could happen, but the nature of where we are now is we have a truck driver shortage and rail cars are booked up,” he said.

“Navigation is the most efficient way to move cargo around,” said Roe, noting that one barge can carry the same amount of cargo as 15 rail cars or 58 tractor-trailers.

Drought is also causing problems at another major shipping channel, the Panama Canal. The U.S. Energy Information Administration said at the end of October that delays caused by low water levels have pushed shipping rates to record high levels, raising the cost of exporting liquefied natural gas.

And Reuters reported Oct. 31 that the Panama Canal Authority plans to dramatically reduce the number of ships allowed through the channel over the next several months.

Basin degradation 

There are those who argue that the corps’ focus on protecting shipping interests, which dates back to the early 1800s, has badly degraded the nation’s largest river system.

Kelly McGinnis, executive director of the Mississippi River Network, made up of nearly 70 organizations in 10 states touching the river, said her group’s vision is for “a healthy, functional, resilient Mississippi River that benefits the people, land, water and wildlife.”

The organization tries to work with the corps to “make sure they’re doing things in the least harmful way,” McGinnis said, but members of the network lament the fact that “using the river for navigation has caused significant health impacts on the river as well as on the people, land, water and wildlife that depend on it.

“There’s an engineering component of a disaster that is making it so that people can’t drink water safely, but those barges are still getting out there,” she said.

Bob Criss, a professor emeritus of earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, is also critical of the barge industry.

“They want more dredging, they want more channel maintenance and they want bigger locks and dams, but they don’t want to pay for it themselves,” Criss said, arguing that shipping fees rather than taxpayer dollars should pay for the corps’ dredging operations.

Criss also bemoans the damage that has been done to the river basin over centuries. “The ecosystem of the river has been demolished,” he said. “All the shallow water habitat is gone, all the bars and islands are gone, where fish used to spawn, ducks used to lay their eggs and all kinds of waterfowl up the Mississippi flyway” relied heavily on the river basin.

Zea of the Waterways Council responded that it’s not just shippers who use the river. “If you look at the inland waterway transportation system, there are a lot of beneficiaries — industrial water supply, hydropower, recreational boaters. Everyone in the nation benefits.”

McGinnis said the Mississippi River Network wants Congress to do more to tip the balance from shipping maintenance to ecosystem management.

“Our ultimate policy goal is we want to see just and equitable policies that deal with the natural form and function of the river,” she said. “Obviously we understand the tremendous economic impact the health of the barge industry can have on the economy, but we still think when it gets to the point of people’s health and drinking water not being able to be accessed, that those basic needs should be met first.”

Last year Congress authorized $40 million in the Water Resources Development Act (PL 117-263) for flood control, navigation and ecosystem restoration projects in the Lower Mississippi River. The Army Corps of Engineers announced in June that it is spending $25 million over the next five years on a “mega-study” of all aspects of river management, including flood control, navigation, water supply and environmental restoration.

“The Mississippi River is the nation’s most important waterway and one of the world’s most important natural resources,” Col. Cullen Jones, commander of the corps’ New Orleans district, said when the study was announced. “We are committed to ensuring it remains so in the future.”

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