West News Wire: Due to this, the river’s water levels have decreased to almost record-low levels, impeding barge and ship activity that is essential for transporting recently harvested agricultural products like soybeans and maize downriver for export.
The present drought plaguing the central United States is likely a short-term weather event, despite scientists’ claims that climate change is increasing temperatures and making droughts more frequent and harsh.
The lack of rain has had a negative impact on business. According to figures from the industry that were used by the federal government, the river transports more than half of all US grain exports, but the drought has decreased the flow of goods by around 45%. Prices for shipping products through rail, an alternative to barge, are also rising.
“It just means lower income, basically,” said Mike Doherty, a senior economist with the Illinois Farm Bureau.
Thomas farms at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and doesn’t own enough grain storage to wait out the high costs of shipping. “I’ve had to take a price discount,” he said.
Climate change is generally driving wetter conditions in the Upper Mississippi River region, but in recent months, lower water levels have revealed parts that are usually inaccessible.
Thousands of visitors last weekend walked across a typically submerged riverbed to Tower Rock, a protruding formation about 160km (100 miles) southeast of St Louis. It’s the first time since 2012 that people could make the trek and stay dry. On the border of Tennessee and Missouri where the river is 0.8km (a half-mile) wide, four-wheeler tracks snake across vast stretches of exposed riverbed.
In a badly needed break from the dry weather, the region finally received some rain this week. “It is kind of taking the edge off the pain of the low water, but it is not going to completely alleviate it,” said Kai Roth of the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center, adding that the river needs several rounds of “good, soaking rain”.
Barges are at risk of hitting bottom and getting stuck in the mud. This month, the US Coast Guard said there had been at least eight such groundings.
Some barges touch the bottom but don’t get stuck. Others need salvage companies to help them out. Barges are cautioned to lighten their loads to prevent them from sinking too deep in the water, but that means they can carry fewer goods.
To ensure that vessels can travel safely, federal officials regularly meet, consider the depth of the river and talk to the shipping industry to determine local closures and traffic restrictions. When a stretch is temporarily closed, hundreds of barges may line up to wait.
“It’s very dynamic: Things are changing constantly,” said Eric Carrero, the Coast Guard’s director of western rivers and waterways. “Every day, when we are doing our surveys, we’re finding areas that are shallow and they need to dredge.”
After a closed-down section is dredged, officials mark a safe channel and barges can once again pass through.
In some places, storage at barge terminals is filling up, preventing more goods from coming in, according to Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition. He said the influx of grain into a compromised river transportation system is like “attaching a garden hose to a fire hydrant”. High costs for farmers have led some to wait to ship their goods, he added.
For tourists, much of the river is still accessible.
Cruise ships are built to withstand the river’s extremes: Big engines fight fast currents in the spring and shallow drafts keep the boats moving in a drought, said Charles Robertson, president and CEO of American Cruise Lines, which operates five cruise ships that can carry 150 to 190 passengers each.
Nighttime operations are limited, however, to help ships avoid new obstacles that the drought has exposed. And some landing areas aren’t accessible because of low water the river is dried out along the edges.
In Vicksburg, Mississippi, a cruise ship couldn’t get to a ramp that typically loads passengers, so the city, with help from townspeople, laid gravel and plywood to create a makeshift walkway. For some, it adds to the adventure.