Will It or Won’t It (Shut Down, that Is)
There is a great deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth concerning low water levels on the Mississippi River this winter. Several months of drought will reduce water levels, you know. And some of us have a hard time getting our head wrapped around the fact that 18th months or so ago, the river saw some of the highest floods on record. What’s going on here?
Well, opinions differ, naturally. For the past several weeks, shipping trade councils such as the American Waterways Council have reported that the Mississippi’s imminent closure to shipping will be an economic catastrophe. Thousands of jobs would be lost, farmers across the nation would be potentially delayed in getting their crops in the field, and billions of tons of goods would be idled. Senators from across the Midwest petitioned President Obama to order the Corps of Engineers to fix the matter by deepening the channel and by releasing water from the Missouri River. The Corps is blasting rock from some of the trouble spots, but has been reluctant to release water from the Missouri, where a Master Manual governs management of that river.
If you want to learn more about this controversy, the Northeast-Midwest Institute’s Mississippi River Basin blog is an excellent starting point.
But what about the shipping crisis? As I said, opinions differ. Despite the Cassandra-like cries of doom from the shipping industry, the Corps of Engineers now reports that its channel maintenance efforts have been sufficient to keep the barge way open for weeks, if not indefinitely.
Of course they would say that, just as “of course” the shipping industry warns of catastrophe ahead.
What can we learn here? Maybe not much more than this basic, but profound, concept: the Mississippi River is so large, and so dynamic, that efforts to “manage” it should be undertaken only with caution, respect, and as much foresight as we can muster.