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Responding to Drought on the Mississippi by Julie Wood

February 4, 2013Joanne RichardsonGuest PostsComments Off on Responding to Drought on the Mississippi by Julie Wood

Recently, River Talk gave some space to some of the most interesting new voices we’ve heard recently.  These five young people were all students in the Honors Seminar last fall, “Living Sustainably with the Mississippi River.” We hope you agree that students like these are promising lights for the future of sustainable rivers. See the rest of the student posts on our For Students page.

I first heard about the effect this summer’s drought was having on the Mississippi River shipping industry on NPR when I was driving back from my job at an outdoor pool in Missouri in meltingly hot 110 degree weather (you can check out the story here). This summer was the hottest and driest in my memory; some have even compared it to the Dust Bowl. The basic problem outlined on the program was that the Mississippi River had gotten so low in St. Louis, shipping companies were having to reduce the loads on each barge by about a third of their previous capacity. Since shippers are paid per ton of cargo, they had to use more barges to ship the same amount of cargo, which was causing substantial revenue losses. Furthermore, some ports farther down the Mississippi were experiencing water levels so low, they couldn’t even get the barges into the docks to unload, and were also losing revenue.

Now fast-forward a couple of months, when the heat of the summer has faded into memory, and the shipping industry is still facing the problem of record-low water levels. Their situation might further worsen this winter because on November 23rd, the Army Corps of Engineers began to reduce outflow from the upper Missouri River dam located in South Dakota. This will further lower water levels in the Mississippi River, since the Missouri River flows into the Mississippi near St. Louis. Less water in the Missouri equals less water in the Mississippi. However, this year, the water levels might drop so low that barge traffic on the river may cease for several months. This has led to an outcry from legislators and shipping industry leaders from Mississippi River states. Legislators from Missouri, Illinois and Iowa (the states located in the stretch river most affected by the drought) have requested that President Obama declare a state of emergency on the river to keep river traffic moving and their states from an environmental (and economic) disaster.

They may well be right. This article outlines the repercussions stopping barge traffic on the Mississippi will likely have on Americans. Barges on the Mississippi carry many important commodities, including grain, coal, rock salt for the winter, and fertilizer for the spring. With reduced shipping capacity on barges, Americans will probably see price increases for their groceries and utility bills, and their communities might find important winter commodities in short supply. The American Waterways Operators trade group estimate that if conditions remain unchanged, there could be a two-month shut-down of shipping on the river, resulting in and estimated $7 billion loss. This could devastate communities that depend on shipping for most of their income.

As of this writing, the White House has not yet responded to requests for it to declare a state of emergency on the Mississippi and release more water into the Missouri River. This decision illustrates the difficulties of attempting to regulate our powerful natural resources. When an important industry relies on a natural resource that isn’t always there, how many measures should be taken to maintain it?

Guest post by Julie Wood.

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A joint project of River Life, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the University of Minnesota Libraries, Open Rivers is an interdisciplinary online journal that recognizes the Mississippi River as a space for timely and critical conversations about people, community, water, and place.