Low Water Levels On The Mississippi River A Major Threat To Commerce: ‘This Is Absolutely Not Normal’

Companies operating along the Mississippi River are seeing a drastic cut in business as severe drought lowers water levels and makes shipping increasingly difficult.

The drought, which now covers more than 1,000 counties across the US, has dropped water levels 50 feet below last year’s levels in some places. Last winter’s lack of snow, the absence of any major tropical storms from the Gulf of Mexico, sweltering temperatures, and the lack of rain this spring and summer are to blame for the shallow water.

The Mississippi is a major trade conduit through the central U.S. Barges, which are often cheaper to operate than trains or trucks, carry goods such as grain, corn, soybeans, steel, rubber, coffee, fertilizer, coal, and petroleum products in and out of the interior of the country.

As the water levels fall, barges have run aground near Vicksburg, Mississippi, where the water is already less than 5 feet deep, and shipping companies have been forced to curtail their business. The Wall Street Journal reports:

‘It’s causing headaches all up and down the river system right now,’ said Martin Hettel, senior manager of bulk sales for AEP River Operations, a St. Louis-based barge company.

Mark Fletcher, owner of Ceres Barge Line of East St. Louis, Ill., said about 70% of his 220 barges aren’t being used now. First, the drought cut crops, reducing demand for shipping. Now, low water levels are making it more costly to ship.

‘It’s not good if you are in the barge business right now,’ he said. ‘In the last 60 days, you’ve watched a whole lot of money go out the window.’

Some river ports have been forced to close temporarily or shut down parts of their operations because of the low water levels. At the port of Rosedale in the Mississippi Delta, port director Robert Maxwell Jr. said water levels are about 50 feet below what they were last year, when flooding shut down the port. If the water falls any lower, there was a ‘high likelihood’ he would have to close, he said. One of the port’s public loading docks is inoperable, with equipment normally in the water now hanging the air. The Army Corps of Engineers is supposed to come this week to dredge, where heavy equipment is used to dig out sediment from waterways to make them passable for shipping.

‘This is absolutely not normal,’ Mr. Maxwell said.

In response to the dramatically low water levels, companies have decreased the number of barges in operation. Without some steady rain soon, “the vast majority of commerce would have to stop,” says P.B. Shah, president of Ingram Barge Co., the largest barge company operating on the Mississippi river.

— by Max Frankel


12 Responses to Low Water Levels On The Mississippi River A Major Threat To Commerce: ‘This Is Absolutely Not Normal’

  1. Lynden says:

    I wonder how many coal plants will be unable to draw water from these rivers for cooling.

  2. Joan Savage says:

    The gauge readings are not the same as measurement to river bottom. The gauges are set to a fixed location including altitude, while the river itself can scour deeper or fill with sediment or move its channel.

    The US Army Corps of Engineers for the Vicksburg District has gauge readings of

    Vicksburg MS: 5.7 ft
    New Orleans LA: 2.5 ft
    Memphis TN: -5.6 ft
    (yes, that’s a negative 5.6 feet)
    Little Rock AR: 7.6 ft (waterway connected to the Mississippi)

  3. colinc says:

    While that is certainly a non-trivial concern, I think this List of nuclear reactors and the map here may be a bit more disconcerting.

  4. So let’s toss this onto the growing heap of formerly unanticipated changes due to climate instability.

    Long ago we tired of squabbling with deniers. Now we grow weary of the sting of yet another rude consequence.

    We are about to learn the lesson – that we reap what we sow — we just have not decided how to react.

  5. Robert In New Orleans says:

    Salt water moving UP the Mississippi River threatens New Orleans area drinking water supply.

  6. Janat says:

    If this isn’t testimony to STOP FRACKING which will use in one well what 79,000 families would use in a year!!! We don’t have enough water to use for such a toxic business. Wake up everyone…water is the next OIL. Can you imagine wars over water? We can live without oil…cannot live without water.

  7. Bleekerstreet says:

    I read the story about the “salt wedge” in NOLA today. As far as I can determine there is no plan B for the New Orleans water supply if these new river levels are the ‘new normal.’

  8. Paul Magnus says:

    I think we have basically passed a tipping point and to visualize it one can view that as the global temp ceiling of 1998/2005/2010.

    Basically we are just about to or just have broken through it and this means global weather chaos. Extreme weather extremes now happening larger, more intense more frequently on a cyclic basis. And this cycle looks like a 2 – 5yr period.

    This tipping point effect for civilization – there is no way that at the current occurrence of these extreme events is global civilization going to survive. And its going to get worse….

    Climate Chaos shared a link.
    2 seconds ago
    Welcome to the Rest of Our Lives

    A Year After Historic Floods, They Now ‘Pray For Rain’
    MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A year after the Mississippi River swelled to near-historic proportions and flooded farms and homes from Illinois to Louisiana, the level along the waterway’s southern half is so low that cargo barges have run aground and their operators have been forced to lighten their loads….

  9. Jack Burton says:

    Paul Magnus, I very much agree with you. Though most scientists say we are not near a tipping point, I feel we have passed the tipping point. The real climate consequences have been masked as of late. Masked by a three year La Nina and a rare solar minimum. These have now been replaced by a growing El Nino and a return to a normal solar output.
    Remember the weather chaos of last year! Many said this was a rare one off event. Well now it is 2012 and the climate has clearly gone mad!
    I can’t prove we have passed a tipping point into a new unstable state. But I feel it is so. What state the climate is in the process of switching into is what scares me. The chaos is simply the process of the switch.
    To be honest, we can not deny what is happening in the arctic and Greenland. It is a rapid meltdown, way faster than science ever dared predict.
    I have flow over Greenland as recently as 4 years ago in September. One look at the melt lakes and rives on the glacier surfaces was the shock of a life time! It is right there to be seen, massive, massive melting!

  10. MorinMoss says:

    There’s a Dave Burton who posts denialist and contrarian views over on Peter Sinclair’s Climate Crocks.
    If’s he related to you, please take him along on your next Greenland flyover as he badly needs a wake-up call.

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Tipping-points are long past, the loss of Arctic summer sea ice the most prominent in my understanding. Denying that is poor policy on the part of climate realists. The points of no return are also, I would say, clearly past, with oceanic thermal inertia, Greenland ice melting or Arctic methane releases my picks as the most terrifying. The quick disruption of the hydrological cycle by increased atmospheric water vapour doesn’t look likely to reverse, not in the lifetime of the next few score generations, so we are simply facing a struggle not to avoid catastrophe, but somehow to survive it. The current global power structure makes that utterly impossible. This is a disaster that requires total, selfless, global collaboration, not national, class and economic contest.

  12. william shepherd says:

    The president of Ingram should know better to to issue a false statement about the majority of commerce stopping on the MS River. The low water will create issues, but commerce will not grind to a halt.The problem of tows (boats & the barges) running aground is caused more by grain companies, like Ingram, refuse to lighten the drafts of their barges and reduce the size of the tows they move.