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Mississippi River faces drought and unsustainable conditions for commerce

The Mississippi River is nearing historic lows, threatening U.S. commerce and supply chain

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Low-water restrictions on the barge loads make for cautious navigation through the Mississippi River as evidenced by the American Heritage paddlewheeler passing a tow moored on the Louisiana-side river bank in Vicksburg, Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022.

Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press

The Mississippi River is experiencing a severe drought and is fast approaching its lowest water levels in 10 years. These conditions are wreaking havoc on the agricultural industry, river transportation and the communities that depend on the water.

Low water levels are not unheard of, especially in October, which is known for these drops. However, according to the Wall Street Journal, authorities are more concerned than usual because the water level is nearing historic lows, the likes of which barge operators haven’t seen since 1988.


The Mississippi River stage marking on the bridge in Vicksburg, Miss., display the low water level, Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022. The unusually low water level in the lower Mississippi River has caused some barges and vessels to get stuck in the muddy river bottom, resulting in delays. The U.S. Coast Guard has reported some groundings over the past weeks despite low-water restrictions on the barge loads. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press

The Mississippi Valley and Ohio River Valley haven’t seen enough rainfall this year to ease drought conditions, despite the two record storms hitting St. Louis and Eastern Kentucky over the summer, per the Washington Post.

The river’s water levels tend to rise again in December, meaning there is still a two month window during which drought conditions will likely worsen.

Jeff Graschel, a National Weather Service hydrologist at the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center, told the New York Times, “Basically, we’re not seeing any heavy rainfall over the next several weeks to indicate that we would get any relief from low water conditions for the lower Mississippi.”

Without sufficient rainfall, the Mississippi River will not attain sufficient levels to support the amount of transportation and trade that occurs along that route.

How is this affecting the transportation industry?

The river’s water levels have fallen so far that barge and boat travel has become unsustainable for companies.

Boats and barges are running aground and getting stuck in a sort of traffic jam, resulting in a backup of over 2,000 barges, said the U.S. Coast Guard.

Austin Golding, president of Golding Barge Line, told the Wall Street Journal that lower water levels “puts into question our viability and long term dependability.”

The only way to resolve the issue — and a very costly one at that — is to dredge the river each time traffic jams occur. It costs taxpayers billions of dollars each year.

According to the Washington Post, an area of the river near Vicksburg, Mississippi, endured a session of emergency dredging, during which 1,700 barges were backed up. Just days later, another dredging closure occurred near Memphis, Tennessee.

Should the Mississippi River’s water levels fall further, its future holds much more dredging than has been done already.

Barges play a large role in Mississippi River commerce, but they aren’t the only mode of transit being impacted by lower water levels. Riverboats, a mainstay along the Mississippi River, are a popular mode of transport on the river and an important part of the regional economy.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, tour company owner Bertram Hayes-Davis said that he provides tours to people on riverboat cruises that arrive in Vicksburg. He revealed closures may cause him to cancel as many as half of the 28 tours he has scheduled for November.

How will drought affect agriculture exports?

According to reporting from Bloomberg, the Mississippi River supports 92% of agricultural exports in the U.S.

This is due in part to the low costs associated with river transport. It’s much less expensive than plane, train and truck shipping.

Delays in barge shipments will lead companies to diversify their shipping methods, which could result in more highway traffic and higher gas prices, per Bloomberg.

Mike Steenhoek, the executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition told The New York Times that the timing couldn’t be worse for the agriculture industry.

Steenhoek said, “It’s harvest time. We need to have that supply chain that can accommodate it, and clearly that’s not happening right now.”

The stress on the shipping system comes amid efforts to transport freshly harvested corn and soybeans, the latter of which are especially delicate. They need to be harvested quickly and cannot stay in the fields.

With backups in river transit, grain elevators are filling up. Farmers are being forced to figure out where they can store their crops while they wait for an opening on a barge.

All of this scrambling costs farmers and businesses more money, which leads to higher costs raising for consumers.

Gaddis Farms President Ted Kendall found a place to store his soybeans amidst the chaos, though it was 60 miles away.

He told WLOX, “So 120-mile round trip in an 18-wheeler has added to the time and expense that we didn’t anticipate.”

He continued, “We’re making two to three trips a day with a couple of different trucks, you know, about 800 bushels a load. It’s taken us three hours per load, more than we had anticipated.”

Kendall added that grain elevators have begun paying farmers less for their beans due to rising barge costs.

This is due to the lower quantity of barges actually being able to make the journey down the river. The limited availability has caused shipping costs to rise.

Mike Ellis, chief executive of Indiana-based American Commercial Barge Line LLC, told the Wall Street Journal that the barges and commercial boats are hitting the Mississippi River watershed with so much force that the barges fall away from the tow that connects them.

This causes even further delays in crop shipments and contributes to higher costs for the companies that shipped them out.

A long-term disruption in river commerce will have dire impacts on the nation’s economy as well as our infrastructure.

According to Ellis, “America is going to shut down if we shut down.”