The impact of the drought on crop and livestock producers has been well documented this year. Now another issue is emerging. Water levels on the Mississippi River are falling – and if they get too low – the nation’s main inland waterway could become impassable to barges. The river could reach the point where it’s too shallow for the barges that carry food, fuel and other commodities. Experts say the economic losses could climb into the billions if the Mississippi is closed for a lengthy period. Not only would the shipping and grain industries feel the pain of such a closure – but consumers could see higher grocery and utility bills.
The biggest area of concern is a 180-mile stretch between the confluences of the Missouri River near St. Louis and the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois. A lack of rain has squeezed the channel from its normal one-thousand foot or more width to just a few hundred feet. The depth of the river is 15 to 20 feet less than normal – about 13 feet deep in many places. At a depth of nine feet – rock pinnacles at two locations make it difficult – if not impossible – for barges to pass. National Weather Service hydrologists predict the river will reach that nine-foot mark by December 9th.
The situation has been made worse by an Army Corps of Engineers decision to reduce the outflow from an upper Missouri River dam in South Dakota. There the drought has intensified – so to ease the effects of the drought in the northern Missouri River basin – the flow is gradually being cut by more than two-thirds by December 11th.