Water levels in the Mississippi are at their lowest levels in a decade due to a severe Midwest drought, shutting down vital passageways to transport crops from the U.S. heartland at a critical time of year.
The Army Corps of Engineers has been dredging parts of the river for the past week in an attempt to deepen the waterway and get barge traffic flowing again. But the shutdown has created massive tying in the country’s already struggling supply chain.
Low waters also caused eight barges to run aground last week, according to a U.S. Coast Guard report.
As of Friday, the Coast Guard reported 144 boats and 2,253 barges lined up to pass through two rivers where traffic had stopped — one near Memphis and the other north of Vicksburg, Mississippi. While the Coast Guard’s statement said it hoped to resume traffic again later Friday, it was impossible to say when that would happen.
“Coast Guard, [Army Corps of Engineers] and river industry partners are working toward the goal of opening waterways to limit one-way traffic when it is safe to do so,” the Coast Guard statement said.
Even if the barges start moving again, they will be forced to carry up to 20% less cargo than usual to avoid going too deep in the water. Unlike where a ship typically moves between 30 and 40 barges at a time, they can only move no more than 25 barges per voyage due to the narrower channel.
Mike Seyfert, chief executive of the National Grain and Feed Association, said fewer barges per trip, less cargo per barge, and even before the recent river closures, barges had less capacity to move on the river. has been reduced by about 50%. This has caused the rates paid by shippers to skyrocket.
“Based on what we’ve heard from our members, this has resulted in record barge rates, driven by the fact that traffic is limited,” Seyfert said.
River barges remain the primary means of transporting goods within the United States, especially agricultural products.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, about 5 percent of U.S. cargo, as measured by cargo weight and distance traveled, travels by inland barges. Shippers using river barges have few, if any, affordable alternatives.
Most of the barges heading south this time of year carry produce. Many of those who migrated north were carrying the fertilizer farmers needed for their next planting.
“This time of year, rivers are critical for transporting products,” Seyfert said.
Areas that supply water to the Mississippi have been hit especially hard A regional drought since July has caused water levels around Arkansas and Tennessee to plummet, according to data tracked by the U.S. Geological Survey. The two highest-level droughts in the Midwest and South recently expanded, according to last week’s U.S. Drought Monitor report.
It’s just another stumbling block For U.S. supply chains that are still struggling to recover from disruptions since the pandemic began two-and-a-half years ago. West Coast ports, where most U.S. imports arrive by container ship, also remain overcrowded.
Even though the freight railroads’ strike was narrowly avoided last month, even the freight railroads themselves admit that they are providing substandard services due to their own labour shortages.
The Mississippi is not the only river facing low water levels and creating economic problems for those who depend on them.
A prolonged drought in the western United States has pushed reservoirs in the Colorado River Basin to an all-time low. Water supply is critical for both hydroelectric power generation and the water supply required by western states.
In Germany, water levels on the Rhine fell in August, limiting barge traffic there, including the transport of coal needed to power power plants.
Low water levels in the Mississippi show little sign of relief.
Another dry week across much of the central and southern U.S. led to “intensified drought conditions in the Great Plains, Mississippi Valley and much of the Midwest,” according to the latest update from the U.S. Drought Monitor.
The summary notes that “a very dry past month” has led to a significant drop in crops and river levels.
A whopping 57% of Arkansas is experiencing severe drought, the highest level in five years; three A few months ago, it was less than 1%. In the North, the number of Missouri judged to be in severe drought has doubled each week for the past two weeks and is now 30% of the state.
These widespread dry conditions also affect other important tributaries of the Mississippi River. More than 70 percent of the Missouri River Basin faces drought this week, which means less water is entering the Mississippi River, lowering water levels even further.
For example, the University of Missouri Weather Station in Columbia reported just 6.46 inches of rain between June 2 and September 27. That’s 11 inches below normal and the driest period for the region in 23 years.
Heavy rain is not expected in the lower Mississippi and Ohio River basins next week, with water levels expected to drop further.