The Mississippi River is a key U.S. waterway that ferries essential commodities between the heart of America and the Gulf Coast. However, with weeks of drought, the Mississippi River now sits at negative 10 feet causing transportation vessels to halt mid route.
So, what’s the cause?
The reason for low river levels is simple: no rain.
Although the river is always relatively low during this time of year, many parts of the Midwest and Plains haven’t seen enough rainfalls to ease drought conditions despite two record storms hitting St. Louis and Eastern Kentucky this summer, per The Washington Post.
According to historic averages, the river’s water levels are projected to rise around Christmas time, leaving two dry months remaining.
Jeff Graschel, a National Weather hydrologist at the Lower Mississippi 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.”
With less than an inch of rain expected across the region by the end of next week, everything from cruise ships and river transportation to the U.S. supply chain and river ecosystems will be affected. Boats and marinas have been sitting dry for weeks now with floating docks beached.
400 million year old rock attracting tourists
As river levels on the Mississippi River continue to drop, a typically isolated rock formation roughly 100 miles south of St. Louis is turning into a tourist destination for people across the country.
Sitting in the middle of the Mississippi River, Tower Rock has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1970.
Usually accessible only by boat, the low water on the Mississippi River has people flocking to the 400-million-year-old Landmark in Perry County and the Missouri Department of Conservation is urging people to be safe and courteous when visiting Tower Rock.
The roughly 32-acre natural area is comprised of upland oak-pine and mixed hardwoods. It features a vertical geologic formation known as “Tower Rock” in the river channel.
What does this mean for the transportation industry?
Boats and barges are beached, resulting in a backup of over 2,000 barges and even more smaller water vessels, says the U.S. Coast Guard.
Unfortunately, the only way to resolve traffic backups are to dredge the river, costing taxpayers billions of dollars as a result. Should the water levels continue to decrease, this costly solution will be the only way to continue water-based transit.
Although barges take up a large percentage of vessels that ferry across the Mississippi River, they aren’t the only mode of transit being impacted. Riverboats and cruise ships play an important role in the regional economy.
Tour company owner, Bertram Hayes-Davis told the Wall Street Journal that he provides tours to people on riverboat cruises that arrive in Vicksburg. If the drought continues, he may have to cancel as many as half of the 28 tours he had scheduled for November.
Passengers on the way to St. Paul, Minnesota on a 15-day Mississippi Viking cruise ship were forced to disembark many miles away from their destination on the nearest boat ramp with full refunds and the encouragement to re-book when water levels have risen.
What does this mean for agriculture exports?
According to Bloomberg, the Mississippi River supports 92% of agricultural exports in the U.S. This high percentage is due in part by the low costs associated with water transportation which is much less costly than plane, train, or trucking.
Unfortunately, the delays in water based agriculture cargo will lead to alternative shipping methods, which could result in increased highway traffic and higher gas prices, per Bloomberg.
According to the Washington Post, the Army Corps of Engineers dredges an average of 265 million cubic yards in the Mississippi Valley each year – a process that totals $2.45 billion to do.
Although costly, the work to maintain a viable transportation network within the Mississippi rover represents what the corps estimate to be $12.5 billion in transportation cost savings due to the expense of alternative cargo transportation.
No rain, no grain – what does this mean for crop cargo?
Without the minimum water level to safely traverse through the Mississippi River, crop cargo will remain floating in terminals. According to The New York Times, some 60% of grain exported from the U.S. is shipped along the Mississippi River through New Orleans and Louisiana which poses a threat to commerce distribution if transportation continues to remain unmoving.
Farmers are in the middle of fall harvest, a peak time for transportation. However, with continued backups in river transit, grain storage is filling up and farmers are being forced to figure out a solution as to where to store their harvested crops while they wait for availability on a barge.
“While the public and media generally understand that our economy depends upon viable international ocean shipping, trucking, and rail transportation, the essential role of our inland waterways is often overlooked,” says Peter Friedmann, executive director of the Agriculture Transportation Coalition to CNBC. “Our members depend upon adequate water levels in the Mississippi River system, to reach domestic and international export markets. The low water disruption of the supply chain will be felt not only by our U.S. producers of food, farm, and fiber but also by U.S. and international consumers as well.”
What does this mean for fertilizer, oil, and coal?
“Farmers in the U.S. apply fertilizer in November and a slowdown in river traffic could delay those crop inputs from reaching the Corn Belt in time,” says Alexis Maxwell, an analyst at Bloomberg.
Nitrogen fertilizer, which corn farmers apply each year, travels by river up from New Orleans to the Midwest.
“About a one third of U.S. consumption of the common nitrogen fertilizer urea moves on the Mississippi,” says Maxwell.
According to Bloomberg, about 5.4 million barrels of crude and refined products move by tanker and barge between the Midwest and Gulf Coast each month. With the inability to transport oil, the lack of accessibility will drive prices to an even higher number than what we’ve seen.
35% of U.S thermal coal comes from Mississippi, so that will play a significant role in shaping the current economic landscape, per The Washington Post.
What does this mean for history?
Despite hitting the leader board with a record all time low, the decreased water levels exposed a 19th century shipwreck in Baton Rouge.
This discovery is certainly a win for Baton Rouge history and the legacy of the ships. However, with the continuation of dry forecasts, river scavengers may continue to discover long submerged treasures.
With water levels so low and the river’s flow weakened, salt water from the Gulf of Mexico could start creeping upstream, which would threaten local ecology and drinking supplies. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced plans at the end of September to construct a sill—an underwater obstacle—to halt the salt water’s flow upstream.
The Mississippi River tends to experience seasonally low water levels in the fall, the corps said, but with drought conditions persisting across the Mississippi’s headwater regions in the Midwest, it may be a while before water height returns to normal.
The bottom line of the Mississippi River. Too Soon?!
Unfortunately, the lower water levels won’t only compromise shipments and travel, but the economy as well. Since the Mississippi River is used as a key portal for cost-effective transit of large-scale goods, America’s ability to thrive hinges on its wellbeing and proper function.
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