The Not-So-Mighty Mississippi: How the River’s Low Water Levels Are Impacting the Economy

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Rogelio V. Solis / AP

A barge passes by exposed riverbed through the shallow waters of the Mississippi River in Vicksburg, Miss.

For those who make their living along the Mississippi River, helping ship many of the country’s most vital commodities, this year’s drought has inevitably raised the specter of 1988. That’s when the river got so low that barge traffic came to a standstill — and the industry lost $1 billion. Unfortunately, 2012 could be worse.

Along the 2,500 miles of the Mississippi, America’s most important waterway, signs of the country’s worst drought in 50 years can be found at almost any point. Near Memphis, the river is about 13 ft. below its normal depth, according to the National Weather Service. In Vicksburg, Miss., it’s more than 20 ft. below. Overall, the river is about 13 ft. below normal for this time of year — that’s 55 ft. below last year’s flood levels.

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Those levels have forced barge, tugboat and towboat operators to drastically change how they move goods up and down the river. And as the river dries up, it gets narrower and shallower. The narrowness forces barges to sail more closely past each other, often slowing their speeds. Some sections have become so narrow that only one-way traffic has been able to move through.

At the same time, the shallowness of the Mississippi has forced shippers to load less cargo onto barges because of fears they’ll run aground. The Army Corps of Engineers is tasked with making sure that the channel is at least 9 ft. deep so ships can safely pass.

Lynn Muench, senior vice president of American Waterways Operators (AWO), a national trade association for the industry, says that in a normal year, many tows south of St. Louis would be loaded to 12 ft. or more of draft (essentially the distance from the ship’s waterline to the bottom of the vessel) and made up of some 45 barges linked together. “Now they’re down to 9 ft. of draft,” she says. “One inch of draft in a single barge is about 17 tons of cargo, and that’s almost enough to fill a semitruck.” Combine that with carrying about 30 barges instead of the more typical 45 and the drought is decreasing the cargo carried per tow by more than 500 semitrucks’ worth of goods.

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The benchmark year that everyone in the industry is talking about is 1988, when a drought brought hundreds of barges to a standstill and caused about $1 billion in losses. “I remember there were times when it was a dead stop,” says Merritt Lane, CEO and president of Canal Barge Co. “Some areas became so shallow that they weren’t economically passable. You could move so little cargo, you just can’t go.”

Muench also cites 1988 as the only time in recent memory that could compare with this summer. “For the last two or three weeks, the phrase I keep hearing is, ‘Close to 1988. Worse than 1988. Same as 1988,’ ” she says. “The estimate was that the industry lost over $1 billion. And that doesn’t include any of the ripple effects. There’s a real possibility that it’ll be worse this year.”

Some estimate that closing the river to traffic could lead to losses of about $300 million a day, which would then grow exponentially after a few days. The cost of running an idle tugboat is about $10,000 daily, largely due to fuel costs, says Muench. One tow company says it’s been losing about $500,000 a month since May.

The $180 billion barge, tugboat and towboat industry transports just about anything you can think of that comes in bulk: petroleum, grain, fertilizer, sand, gravel, mulch, steel. “The building blocks of the nation are on our barges,” says Muench. About 60% of the country’s grain exports and one-fifth of its coal is transported along the nation’s inland waterway system, according to the AWO.

The economic costs that come from shipping delays and lighter loads could eventually trickle down to consumers. The AWO estimates that transporting goods via waterways costs $11 a ton less than by rail or truck. If those products are moved to other modes of transportation, the costs for consumers will likely rise.

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Canal Barge Co. carries commodities such as petrochemicals and oil. CEO Lane says that while his company hasn’t calculated how much money has been lost this summer, it has lost revenue opportunities. “That’s money we’ll never see again that didn’t come in the door,” he says.

So far, the Mississippi remains navigable. The Army Corps of Engineers says that as of July 27, the only part of the route closed to barge traffic is the port at Lake Providence in northern Louisiana. The corps is busy dredging stretches of the river to ensure that the Mississippi stays at least 9 ft. deep throughout. Ironically, the money for the dredging operations is coming from a relief act worth $20 million that was passed to help repair damage from last year’s flooding.

Even though the Mississippi is near record lows in some places, Major Rob Wolfenden of the Vicksburg district says the Army Corps doesn’t expect the river to become unnavigable this summer. But without significant rainfall, which isn’t in any long-range forecasts, things are likely to get worse. As summer turns to fall, the weather tends to get drier. Lower temperatures generally mean fewer thunderstorms and less rainfall.

“Take away the thunderstorm mechanism and you run into more serious problems,” says Alex Sosnowski, expert senior meteorologist for AccuWeather.com. And while droughts tend to be a temporary setback, longer-range forecasts are troublesome. Sosnowski says he is anticipating an El Niño weather pattern next year, which would mean below-normal snowfall and above-average temperatures.

The mighty Mississippi — long the country’s most powerful economic waterway — may take a while to regain its strength.

MORE: How the Drought of 2012 Will Make Your Food More Expensive

32 comments
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alzilar
alzilar

This drought in the United States and low water level in the Mississipi and other smaller rivers is the result  of the indifference of the american citizens before the power of Zionism in the United States of America tha allowed Zionists to use tax money to investigate, create and control the stationary equipements to manipulate weather, environment and climate.

Zionists changed USA in a terrorist country working for them only through the control they have over Congress that makes laws, security agencies that spy, imprision and kill the citizens, armed forced whose direction they hold steadily to use american militaries as mercenaries as per their will gainst peacefull countries and even against friendly and allied countries. 

Zionists control everything and everibody by blackmailing and by non jew zionist like Obama who was illegally elected president of USA by Zionist Media and money. They did the same in Brazil to Dilma Rousseff who couldn't be Brazilian president because she wasn't born in Brazil but in Bulgaria.

Americans, wake up and send Zionists to their beloved country which is Israel. Do not hart them. Just send them to the country they work for betraying the country where they were born. But remember, do that for jew and non jew zionists. Non zioist jews allow them to live peacefully.

Zionists are like catholic priest. National citizens working alleays for a foreign country.        

Kelly Myers
Kelly Myers

Well nature is nature and "greed" is getting its butt kicked to many eggs in one basket as they say. Losing $500,000 Greed would be better off closing down till rain why just keep running into dept can not get out off. Don't hold your breath.

f_galton
f_galton

TIME should do an article on how this is affecting the Mississippi mudskippers.

Bob Alexander
Bob Alexander

Great article - actual streamflow number don't lie - we're in for a serious problem as drier months approach.  With less rainfall predicted during the fall/winter recharge period, looks like next spring flows will also be lower.  Thank you Corps of Engineers for being vigilant.

Maurice Clemens
Maurice Clemens

And our stubborn leadership in Washington still want to deny the existence of global warming.......

Kelly Myers
Kelly Myers

Its Call GREED. Its not so much the government, its the likes of the Rock O fellows -Morgans and few other that control this world mess. Stop Check out http://www.thrivemovement.com/...

will need two hours of your time first 10 minutes a bit of time wasting the really gets better how the would works.

Leff Behind
Leff Behind

Part of the problem is that we had slightly-higher-than-normal levels in April and May upstream in the Wisconsin/Minnesota area, and they opened all the locks and dams and let the water wash down to New Orleans.  Now we could use that water, but it's already gone.  There has been lots of talk of flooding some of the submarginal lands along the upper courses of the Mississippi to allow for the expansion of the lakes in early summer and prevent the river from running dry.  Problem is, there needs to be some significant investment in the upper dams to be sure they can take the extra pounding from the water.  I hope this year lends urgency to that discussion.  Floods are bad, but drought is just as bad, and unfortunately our lock-and-dam strategy seems to be more based around the goal of mitigating floods rather than preparing for drought.

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we didnt like the fact that our river kept drying out so we built so

many dams all along it that it's not really a river any more just a long

series of skinny ponds. Coz we now use these ponds to water everything

it takes record floods at the top for any water to make it out the

bottom...

I dont recommend doing what we did....

Andrew Leane
Andrew Leane

Down here in Australia we didnt like the fact that our river kept drying out so we built so many dams all along it that it's not really a river any more just a long series of skinny ponds. Coz we now use these ponds to water everything it takes record floods at the top for any water to make it out the bottom...

I dont recommend doing what we did....

Evangelina
Evangelina

waterway just aren't happening right now. CAshLazy.com

rjs0
rjs0

this is old news, problem is fixed...there was almost double normal rainfall over the ohio river watershed last week, amp; triple normal over the tennessee river the week before that...

JohnnyMorales
JohnnyMorales

 It could 500% of normal in that VERY SMALL area, and NOT have any impact on the Mississippi at VICKSBURG about 1200 miles downstream.

The map you linked to clearly shows that the heavy rains only fell in PART of the Ohio river watershed, NOT all, and that's a big difference.

The sudden rain there only matters if that region was NOT experiencing drought as well.

The national drought monitor shows that yes the entire region save for a small bit in Appalachia is suffering from the drought, and the lower reaches of the Ohio are suffering from the most extreme drought level.

THAT MEANS, the extra rain will never reach the main stem of the Mississippi, and certainly not to Vicksburg.

Just how small the region that got that extra rain is vs a vs the entire Mississippi watershed can be seen here.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wi...

Also, water travels SLOWLY.

Whatever impact the excess rain might have will take a good while to get to the places that need it, and by that time the water could be even lower nullifying its impact.

Yes, I know the Ohio is the largest in terms of water volume tributary of the Mississippi, BUT that does NOT mean it's the only one that matters.

The rest of the tributaries account for about 1/2 of the Mississippi's flow.

So unless the Ohio's overall volume has doubled effective last month over NORMAL average flow, then the drought is still on.

You'll have a valid point if the rains you think ended the problems continue non-stop for 30 days.

Otherwise your conclusion is utter nonsense.

Palladia
Palladia

Are you sure about the Ohio being the largest volume tributary of the Mississippi?  I would think it would be the Missouri, which has a huge watershed.

Palladia
Palladia

Mr. Morales, that was a good answer.  I did some poking around, and it turns out that at their confluence, the Ohio is actually larger than the Mississippi.  I had thought that the much broader area drained by the Missouri would take care of the lessened rainfall there, but that is not the case.

You know, it's nice to have an actual civilized exchange of information on a website.  I appreciate that.  Thank you.

JohnnyMorales
JohnnyMorales

I'm 100% certain.

You are right that the Missouri has the largest watershed by far of all the Mississippi tributaries, BUT the vast majority of watershed is semi-arid with high evaporation rates thanks to low humidity. Additionally, because of the sparse rainfall, significant amounts of water can be drawn away for irrigation or to provide for livestock Etc. and is completely lost to the flow of the Missouri as a result.

The high plains within the Missouri Watershed don't get much more than 20" annually give or take a few.  About 40% half only gets  between 10-20".

The areas of high precipitation in the West flow to other rivers, the Colorado, the Columbia.

The Missouri drains the other side, the "rain shadow" of the Rockies

The Ohio river's watershed on the other hand consists almost entirely of regions that get 40+ inches of rain annually. The Tennessee river's watershed consists of land that gets 60-70".

Unlike the Missouri, virtually the entire Ohio river watershed consists of land with extremely high humidity 24/7, only moderating in winter.

That means its evaporation rate is much much lower, and irrigation is not a must in the region.

Water is drawn off in far greater quantities for municipal use, but even in heavily populated areas, it's a fraction used for agriculture and industry, and most of it gets returned to the river as treated sewage.

Add all the advantages together and you get one that completely nullifies the fact that the Missouri river has a much larger watershed.

There are numerous ways to verify it pretty quickly. Any encyclopedia will.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wi...

Jardin J
Jardin J

You really think two weeks of rain will cure of the worst drought in 50 years? Talk about a bandaid on a broken leg.

JohnnyMorales
JohnnyMorales

 Jardin J:

rjso is clueless.

The link he provides is a "weather" map.

If you want stream flows you go to the USGS, which demonstrate the flows overall are still way below normal, and that you are right in what you think and he is wrong.

For example a water watch provided by the USGS makes the situation as it is now clear, whereas a recent rainfall map is basically meaningless.

http://waterwatch.usgs.gov/ind...

He doesn't seem to understand that rain in the upper reaches of the Ohio do NOT instantly transport down to the Mississippi.

He does not seem to be aware that thanks to the locks and damns all over the system like the Tennessee river water that falls locally first has to meet the needs of the local region before being released down river to restore the Mississippi's flow. 

The response by river management authorities in the Southern Ohio River watershed to the last few weeks of near normal rainfall would be to HOLD THE WATER BACK to refill the lakes that are at extremely low levels in the region.

UNTIL those lakes are FULL water releases will be kept at the absolute

minimum ensuring the short term return to normal rainfall has NO

immediate impact even if it could.

Meanwhile the Northern part of the Ohio River valley, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana remain parched and cancels out any increase in flow that might come from the increase in rains from the Southern Ohio Valley.

For whatever reason he seems to think if it is raining in his front yard, and he lives in the South, than all the stories about low water flow in the Mississippi river are just gubment lies.

rjs0
rjs0

rain over the last 30 days as a percentage of normal:

 

http://water.weather.gov/preci...

rdu23
rdu23

Actually, Jardin is right.  NOAA river stage levels still has the Mississippi River dropping.  Two weeks of rain only raises the river about 3-4 feet, and that only lasts about a week. 

Sharon Wren
Sharon Wren

I live on the Mississippi in IL.  A tourism boat (like the big gambling boats) got stuck on the river when the boat passed through an area that's normally deep enough.  This was late last week so no, not all the problems are solved.  Forutnately no one was seriously injured.

rjs0
rjs0

obviously, areas of illinois north of the ohio / tennessee confluence would not be affected by heavy rains over those watersheds...

but large areas east of the mississippi have had double normal rainfall over 30 days, so south of those areas flows should approve...

http://water.weather.gov/preci...

JohnnyMorales
JohnnyMorales

You need to go to map reading school, your understanding of the map is way off.

"Large" should mean about 50%.

And about 1% have double rainfall totals.

About 1/2 of that 1% belong to other watersheds (the Alabama, the Savana Etc.) that don't flow into the Ohio. (try zooming in on the national map you linked to).

There are areas that have had 150% of normal 30 day average, but  do you really think the flow of a river is a 30 day thing?

For local lakes it is, not major rivers.

60 and 90 day totals, which include the recent wet 30 days tell the whole story.

Palladia
Palladia

IS the "problem fixed?"  That's a "quick fix," not a permanent one.  The Monongahela river, one of the Ohio's tributaries, is about three feet lower than normal, because all the streams and creeks (as well as the Cheat and Yough)  that feed it are also lower than normal.  There will be a quick surge of water from the recent rains, but that's all.  The steady flows that it takes to maintain a navigable waterway just aren't happening right now.

rjs0
rjs0

if you live in pennsylvania then you probably remember the record rainfall totals over the 3 spring months last year, in every state from vermont to arkansas...much of the ohio-PA corn crop was ruined because the ground was too wet to plant on time amp;/or stayed cold till june...last year we had record floods on the mississippi, this year its dry...

i'm aware of the drought in the plains amp; watch Ag reports every day...my point was simply that with well above normal rainfall on the two eastern feeds into the mississippi, problems in areas south of the confluence should be alleviated..

rdu23
rdu23

Hey rjso, go check out the NOAA river stages and tell me if you still feel the same way.

rdu23
rdu23

The river levels aren't solely affected by rainfall, winter plays a HUGE part in it as well.  The Mississippi River Basin saw an extremely mild winter, and with the abnormally warm spring that caused the river to be lower than normal going into summer.  Oh, and before you go saying that "30 days" of rain will help, go look up the NOAA river stages.  In order for rain to help bring the river back up, it would have had to rain CONSISTANTLY in all parts of the Mississippi River basin. NOAA still has the river falling, and falling.

Palladia
Palladia

The rains of last year, and yes, I remember the mud very well, are irrelevant to the situation this year.  It's like having a large income one year, and spending it.  If there's low income the following year, and none of the high-income year has been saved, it just doesn't matter.

And MY point is that a slug of water won't make up a long-term deficit.  The Ohio is one of the tributaries of the Mississippi.  The Missouri is another one, and it dwarfs the Ohio in terms of area drained, and THAT area is still very dry.  You don't have to take my word for it, just wait and see what actually happens.  The Mississippi is low, and will STAY low for months to come.  The (very welcome) rains of the past few days aren't really going to make up the deficit.

Now if we have higher than normal snowfall in the areas whose snowpacks usually contribute a lot of water, coupled with a rainy spring,  next year might be better.  If, on the other hand, the midwest remains in a serious drought condition, it will be worse.

rjs0
rjs0

rain over the last 30 days as a percentage of normal:

http://water.weather.gov/preci...

Palladia
Palladia

It's stil a short-term fix to a longer-term problem.  A band-aid, at best.  Some places are getting rain now (and where I live, in Pennsylvania, is one of them, and I am happy about that) but the huge swath of the midwest which the Mississippi drains, is in a serious drought.