by Katie Valentine
This summer’s historic drought hasn’t let up (in fact, it’s actually expanding in some areas) and it’s causing a lot of trouble in regions whose economies are driven by major bodies of water.
The drought, coupled with a seasonal dry period, has caused water levels on the Mississippi River to fall to near-record lows, which has hurt the Mississippi shipping industry badly. If water isn’t replenished soon (which doesn’t look likely, according to the NOAA Climate Prediction Center), the major waterway may be closed to cargo companies in the coming weeks. Right now, the river is about 13 feet deep in many places, which is 15 to 20 feet lower than normal. If it dips to around 9 feet – which National Weather Service hydrologists predict could happen by Dec. 9 – protruding rocks will make it nearly impossible for barges to pass. A closed Mississippi – or even closed portions – would mean companies would have to find other ways of shipping crops, fuel and other goods throughout the country.
These conditions have caused many members of congress and the business community to call on President Barack Obama to help Mississippi River shipping businesses get back to normal. They want the president to allow the Army Corps of Engineers to dynamite the rocky riverbed near two southern Illinois towns – Thebes and Grand Tower – to deepen the shipping channel, allowing ships to pass through on less water. They also want the Corps to stop reducing water flow from a Missouri River reservoir, which the Corps does each year to conserve water for the spring. Members of congress have sent a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers and spoken out about the issue, and on Tuesday, the American Petroleum Institute, National Association of Manufacturers, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other trade groups and organizations sent a letter to President Obama, urging him to declare emergency in the region and calling for “immediate assistance in averting an economic catastrophe in the heartland.”
Ironically, many of these organizations have refused to acknowledge a growing problem behind the Mississippi’s water woes. Climate change will impact water levels in the U.S. for years to come: science has shown that a warming earth will likely lead to more frequent and more intense droughts like the one the U.S. is experiencing now.
“The drought that we are currently experiencing is consistent with an observed warmer climate,” said a group of Iowa scientists in a group statement earlier this month.
But these organizations actively fight against climate policy: the Chamber of Commerce, API and the National Association of Manufacturers were three of the major opponents of the EPA’s greenhouse gas regulations. In a statement on behalf of API and several other groups, National Association of Manufacturers CEO Jay Timmons called the final regulations “devastating” and “a setback for businesses.” Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue has had little regard for the dangers of climate change during his tenure; in January of this year, he called for expanded fracking, shale oil, and tar sands development in the U.S., saying that the country needs to use the hundreds of billions of tons of fossil fuels it contains under its surface.
The Mississippi River isn’t the only body of water that’s still being affected by the drought. The Great Lakes are also losing water: levels have fallen to near-record lows in Lakes Michigan and Huron, and water levels in Lakes Erie, Ontario and Superior are below average. Like on the Mississippi, shipping is a major industry in the Great Lakes region, and water levels have a major effect on its success.
Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers’ Association, told the Wall Street Journal that the loss of water depth between this year and last means a 1,000-foot vessel is carrying about 1,200 to 1,500 fewer tons per load. The drought is also affecting other industries in the Great Lakes: low water levels in some places are causing marinas to be too shallow for boat docking, with the Army Corps of Engineers estimating that about 30 Great Lakes harbors will need attention in the next couple of years.
A recent Center for American Progress report, “Heavy Weather” indicates that droughts and heat waves in 2011-12 alone will cost the U.S. $40 to $88 billion. Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground reports that the damages could be as high as $150 billion.
With water levels down in many of America’s major waterways, it looks like the costs of this year’s drought will only increase.
Katie Valentine graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in Journalism. She is currently an intern on the international policy team at the Center for American Progress.