Mississippi River Reaches Historic Lows: ‘We Have 50-Year Guys Who’ve Never Seen Anything Like This Before’

AP Photo/Stephen Lance Dennee

The Mississippi River has gone from one extreme to another. Last year it was historic floods that forced evacuations and caused up to $4 billion in economic damage. This year it’s severe drought causing commercial barges to run aground and reducing the flow of trade.

Water levels are 50 feet below last year’s levels along some areas of the Mississippi  River. In some cases, water levels barely reach 5 feet, making it difficult for some barges to reach their destinations. As the severe drought in the South gets worse, barge operators are calling the crisis “near critical.”

MSNBC reports on the drought:

In July, water levels in Cairo, Memphis, Tenn., and Vicksburg, Miss., dipped below those of the historic drought of 1988. That’s affecting everything from commerce on the maritime superhighway to recreation to the drinking water in Louisiana.

The biggest impact may be on shipping. “It’s getting near critical,” said Austin Golding, a third-generation co-owner of Vicksburg, Miss.-based Golding Barge Lines. “Without more rain, we’re heading into uncharted territory.”

About $180 billion worth of goods move up and down the river on barges, 500 million tons of the basic ingredients for much of the U.S. economy, according to the American Waterways Operators, a trade group. It carries 60 percent of the nation’s grain, 22 percent of the oil and gas and 20 percent of the coal, according to American Waterways Operators. It would take 60 trailer trucks to carry the cargo in just one barge, 144 18-wheeler tankers to carry the oil and gas in one petroleum barge.

Last year’s flooding moved a large amount of soil and silt into the river, making the problem worse by elevating the riverbed:

Because of that sediment in a flood, “as the ceiling rises, so does the floor,” said Golding. “We’ve just dealt with a historic flood, then the water drops.… We have some 50-year guys who’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s a completely different river than anybody’s ever seen.”

Some companies have reduced their loads by 25 percent due to the low water levels, making it far more expensive to ship products along the river. In July, the president of the largest barge company on the Mississsippi River predicted that “the vast majority of commerce would have to stop” without rain.

July was the hottest month on record for the U.S., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That helped spread drought to 78 percent of the country — with 24 percent in “exceptional” drought conditions.

July was also the fourth hottest month globally — marking the 329th consecutive month that global average temperatures were above the 20th century average, according to NOAA.


13 Responses to Mississippi River Reaches Historic Lows: ‘We Have 50-Year Guys Who’ve Never Seen Anything Like This Before’

  1. Bleekerstreet says:

    This may be an odd question but what happens when the levees dry out?

  2. prokaryotes says:

    Salt water encroaching low Mississippi River, threatening New Orleans drinking water

    And no sand bag can stop this from happening.

  3. Joan Savage says:

    Good question…Look up two keywords, levee and desiccation, and you’ll get material on several outcomes: cracks (fissures), through seepage, underseepage, slope stability and breach.

  4. You can’t adapt to living in a place that’s flooded one year and a desert the next.

  5. Joan Savage says:

    Anyone who might be interested in near real-time rive gauge readings in the Mississippi Basin can do so at the website maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Note gauges are set to a fixed altitude, though the river bottom can be scoured deeper or pile up sediment, so the real water depth can be different from the gauge reading. That explains why there are some negative readings of water depth.

  6. Joan Savage says:

    ..not a sand bag, but a sill is effective as a relatively short-term measure, and quite expensive. The following is from your link:

    “The company will dredge sediment to build up the barrier at a point near Myrtle Grove in Plaquemines. The company was given an $8.1 million contract to do the work. The barrier is expected to be done in 45 days.

    Ricky Boyett, a corps spokesman, said the sill will begin pushing the salt water back into the Gulf of Mexico in about two weeks. The salt water is expected to be stopped by the sill and then pushed out by the flow of the river. The corps says underwater sills have stopped salt water intrusion in the past. Sills were constructed in 1988 and 1999.”

  7. caerbannog says:

    The CEO of Exxon begs to differ with you. You *can* adapt — if you make more in one day than the average American makes in a year, that is…

  8. prokaryotes says:

    Yes. The sand bag was a unlucky metaphor for this

    Oil-spill panel calls Jindal’s sand berms a $220M waste

    Actually i think the Mississippi river should get a Osmosis Plant… for desalination and power generation

  9. prokaryotes says:

    This is a fallacy, it will negatively affect all of us (Yes, in short term money can buy you time) but sooner or later CC kills everybody if we refuse to reduce the Co2 emissions.

  10. prokaryotes says:

    The latest entrant in this sounds-too-good-to-be-true energy sweepstakes: pressure-retarded osmosis, a kind of reverse water desalination that kicks off energy instead of consuming it.

    Scientists at Yale University have recently published an analysis of the process in the American Chemical Society’s journal Environmental Science and Technology. They suggest that it could provide power for half a billion people just by taking advantage of the mixing of fresh river water as it flows into the salty sea at the river’s mouth.

  11. MALL727net says:

    Salinization creeping further into the Mississippi River because of drought conditions is a further sign of climate change. We’re seeing the ’ills’ of global mismanagement coming back to bite us in the rear. I get really tired of people foolish enough to take Rush Limbaugh’s word as gospel. Rush is simply an opportunist who depends on an audience who barely made it through high school and are idiot to consider him all knowing and all wise – he’s not! He is the ’shock-jock’s’ version of a talk show host and a sell-out to special interest groups (read lobbyists) that have no problems further eroding our environment – to me, he’s pure danger! Having worked in radio news I’ve met this type of slime and it makes me want to retch! Global warming is real – man’s negative activities are contributing to this environmental breakdown – and if my money’s anyplace its with the environmental scientists – not some loudmouth conservative with a golden microphone on his desk. Rush Limbaugh spent only two semesters in college and according even to his own mother – flunked everything! For awhile he spun records! He was listed as 4-F to avoid service in Vietnam! Rush is a racist – sorry, but he is the trailer trash of talk radio! Okay enough about that – mentioning Rush really pushes my buttons!-) We need to take environmental change serious lest we want even our food to be imported from China in greater numbers! What frightens me is the environmental damage being done by fracking and the rush to let oil sands flow through the United States. This is highly dangerous stuff! Already we’re seeing manmade earthquakes and flammable liquids entering the fresh water tables and thus into drinking wells where tap water catches fire – this is crazy insane business where profit reigns over common sense! If enough of our waters (and its quickly getting to that point) become overly caustic – you can damn well kiss North America goodbye! We need to embrace clean power technologies that embrace and work with the earth rather than raping it for all its worth. That means more wind turbines, solar and magnetic power generation and in the process, creating more good American jobs! It means rather than oil sands pipelines running though the United States, to run pipelines from areas that see flooding to send the excess water to farmlands where its needed to irrigate crops – you know, the stuff we eat! As to the mighty Mississippi, we need to save her rather than allow her to trickle to a stop! So please, stop listening to drug-addicted college drop-outs as science experts and lets get serious about saving the only earthly home we’ll ever know – for ourselves, for our grandchildren and those to come!