The Mississippi River’s water levels are near record lows, and it’s wreaking havoc on one of the U.S.’s most critical supply chains

Traffic jams and stuck barges clog a critical lifeline of the US economy while a prolonged drought pushes Mississippi water levels to near-record lows.

According to the Port of New Orleans, about 500 million tons of supplies worth $130 billion in trade are shipped down the Mississippi River each year, mostly agricultural products such as corn and soybeans, and fuel products. The Mississippi River Basin produces more than 90% of US agricultural exports and almost 80% of global grain exports, according to the National Park Service.

But all of that is coming to a halt amid historic drought conditions that are making the river impassable to most shipping vessels. River levels are now at their lowest in a decade after historically low rainfall in recent months, becoming the latest supply chain problem to hit the US

“America will close when we close,” said Mike Ellis, Indiana-based CEO of American Commercial Barge Line Wall Street Journal in this week.

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traffic jams on rivers

Low water levels have clogged entire stretches of the Mississippi River in recent weeks, devastating local economies.

At least 2,000 barges were secured along the river last week, Bloomberg reported, citing US Coast Guard data. Also last week, the Coast Guard warned that at least eight heavy barges had “run aground” in particularly shallow stretches of the river.

With fewer ships able to navigate the river and longer waiting times, prices are starting to rise.

“It’s definitely having an impact on the local economy as commercial use of that river has almost completely ceased,” said Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs, Miss the lowest he’s seen in nearly 70 years.

“It will actually affect us very negatively. We need to have less cargo on our barges and move less tonnage. It’s affecting our revenue,” Golding Barge Line President Austin Golding told WAPT.

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It is the worst possible time for a Mississippi drought, as early fall is typically when crops are harvested in the Mississippi Basin and sent down the river. Soybeans are the most commonly shipped commodity on the river, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, but low water levels are throwing the supply chain into chaos.

Trucks full of soybeans are completely turned away from loading stations along the river, Ted Kendall, a farmer near Vicksburg, told local broadcaster WLOX this week.

With water levels so low and river flow weakening, saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico could creep upstream, threatening the local ecology and drinking water supply. The US Army Corps of Engineers announced plans in late September to build a sill — an underwater obstacle — to stop the flow of saltwater upstream.

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The Mississippi tends to have seasonally low water levels in the fall, the Corps said, but as drought conditions persist in the Midwest’s headwaters of the Mississippi, it may take a while for water levels to return to normal.

“Basically, we don’t see any heavy rains for the next few weeks, which suggests we would be relieved of low water conditions for the lower Mississippi,” Jeff Graschel, the National Weather Service’s hydrologist at the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center, told the New York Times last week.

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