Mississippi River faces drought and poses a threat to U.S. economy

The Mississippi is experiencing a severe drought and is fast approaching its lowest water level in 10 years. These conditions are devastating agribusiness, river transportation and water-dependent communities.

Low water levels are not uncommon, especially in October, which is known for those drops. However, according to the Wall Street Journal, authorities are more concerned than usual because water levels are nearing historic lows not seen by barge operators since 1988.

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The Mississippi River stage marker on the bridge in Vicksburg, Mississippi indicates low water levels on Tuesday, October 11, 2022. The lower Mississippi’s unusually low water levels have caused some barges and ships to become bogged down in the mud on the river bottom, causing delays. The US Coast Guard has reported some groundings in recent weeks, despite low-water restrictions on the barges. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press

The Mississippi Valley and Ohio River Valley have not seen enough rain this year to mitigate drought conditions, despite two record-breaking storms that battered St. Louis and eastern Kentucky over the summer, according to the Washington Post.

River levels tend to rise again in December, meaning there is still a two-month window in which drought conditions are likely to 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 heavy rains for the next few weeks, suggesting we’re being relieved of low water conditions for the lower Mississippi.”

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

How does this affect the transport industry?

The river’s water level has dropped to the point where inland and boat trips are no longer viable for businesses.

Boats and barges run aground and get caught in a kind of traffic jam, resulting in a backlog of over 2,000 barges, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

Austin Golding, president of Golding Barge Line, told The Wall Street Journal that lower water levels “are calling into question our profitability and long-term reliability.”

The only way to solve the problem – and a very costly one – is to dredge the river whenever it jams. It costs taxpayers billions of dollars every year.

According to the Washington Post, a river area near Vicksburg, Mississippi, has undergone emergency dredging that has secured 1,700 barges. Just days later, another excavator shutdown occurred near Memphis, Tennessee.

If the water level of the Mississippi continues to fall, much more dredging work will be carried out in the future than has been the case in the past.

Barges play a large part in trade on the Mississippi, but they’re not the only mode of transportation affected by lower water levels. Riverboats, a mainstay along the Mississippi, are a popular mode of river transportation and an important part of the region’s economy.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Bertram Hayes-Davis, owner of the tour company, said that he offers tours for people on river cruises who call in Vicksburg. He revealed closures could see him canceling up to half of the 28 tours he has scheduled for November.

How will the drought affect agricultural exports?

According to reports from Bloomberg, the Mississippi River supports 92% of agricultural exports to the US

This is partly due to the low costs associated with river transport. It’s much cheaper than air, rail and truck shipping.

Delays in shipping will prompt companies to diversify their shipping methods, which Bloomberg said could lead to more freeway traffic and higher gas prices.

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

Steenhoek said: “It’s harvest time. We need a supply chain that can accommodate that and that is clearly not happening right now.”

The stress on the shipping system comes from efforts to ship freshly harvested corn and soybeans, the latter being particularly sensitive. They must be harvested quickly and must not remain in the fields.

With backups in river transit, the grain silos are filling up. Farmers are forced to figure out where to store their crops while waiting for an opening on a barge.

All this mess is costing farmers and businesses more money, resulting in higher costs for consumers.

Amidst the chaos, Gaddis Farms President Ted Kendall found a place to store his soybeans despite being 60 miles away.

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

He continued: “We do two to three trips a day on a couple of different trucks, you know, about 800 bushels a load. It took us three hours per charge, more than we expected.”

Kendall added that grain elevators pay farmers less for their beans due to rising shipping costs.

This is due to the smaller number of barges that can actually make the trip down the river. Due to the limited availability, the shipping costs have increased.

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

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

A long-term disruption in river trade will have a serious impact on the country’s economy, as well as on our infrastructure.

According to Ellis, “America will shut down when we shut down.”



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