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The Cost of a Shrinking Mississippi River

Mississippi_etm_2012221Mississippi River south of Memphis, August 2011. Photo: NASA

Mississippi River south of Memphis, August 2012. Photo: NASA

A drought that has led to low water levels in the Mississippi River and its tributaries has become a costly nuisance to shipping companies and recreational rental shops in parts of the Midwest. 

The worst U.S. drought in 56 years has caused the river to flow at its lowest levels since 1988. Flooding of the river in 2011 led to an increased deposition of silt in some sections, which now require additional dredging. Shippers have been told to reduce their cargo by up to 30 percent on barges to allow the containers to float higher and decrease the chances for running aground.

An area of the river south of Memphis, Tennessee, shown in the satellite images above, is several inches below 2011 levels. The loss of just one inch in draft means a barge should carry 17 tons less cargo than it normally would, a costly reality for shippers who already have to run fewer barges at a slower pace. A paper published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society in 1989 estimated that barge companies lost close to $1 billion because of low-water conditions in 1988.

The New York Times recently published a couple of articles documenting how the decreased flow has led to more dredging, adjustments to barge payloads, temporary traffic closures in sections of the river, and at least one cancellation of a trip by the American Queen, a paddle-wheel steamboat. The Gazette, a newspaper covering Eastern Iowa, reported that low river levels have reduced canoe and tube rentals in some Mississippi tributaries, like the Wapsinicon River and Maquoketa River. Some businesses have stopped renting watercrafts entirely because of the decreased flow.

“Upstream, I’m done,” Cindy Borst, proprietor of Lou Lou’s Landing in Olin, Iowa, told The Gazette. “There’s a mile-long stretch so shallow you have to pull your canoe.”

People looking to give a positive recreational spin to the low flow might point to the increase in midriver sandbars for sunbathing and football, but they should be careful. In the low-river conditions of 1988, there were at least seven deaths blamed on weak, deceptive sandbars.

"If it's really wet sand and there's flowing water underneath it, that's what quicksand is," Steve Barry of the Army Corps of Engineers told the Associated Press. "The other issue is that as the river flows by it undercuts. You think you're on a sandbar but you're basically on a ledge. You put enough weight on it and you end up in the river."

—Joe Spring

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