Mighty Mississippi Laid Low

Dec 19, 2022
 by Seven Seas News Team

The Mississippi River and its tributaries allow transportation of more than $17 billion each year in farm products. Low water levels can threaten those shipments, as well as the source of drinking water for millions.

River joins Lake Mead as another vital water source in jeopardy

From the Allegheny Mountains in the East and the Rockies in the West, runoff trickles, seeps, rushes, or crashes its way to the mighty Mississippi River. It’s the largest drainage basin on the continent, stretching 1,245,000 square miles across 32 American states and two Canadian provinces. This year, however, there was barely enough water to keep it flowing.

The central trade artery and its tributaries allow transportation of more than $17 billion in farm products, including 60% of all annual United States corn and soybean exports. In September, however, amid a global grain shortage and spiking food prices, barges north of Vicksburg were helplessly immobilized, waiting for water levels to rise.

During the worst of it, the low water imprisoned nearly 3,000 barges along the river, and emergency dredging allowed farmers to ship only about half the corn they had shipped the previous year. The low Mississippi also delayed shipments of fuel, coal, industrial chemicals, and building materials.

In Missouri, the iconic island Tower Rock became accessible by foot.

In Baton Rouge, the sinking water levels revealed a 95-foot sunken antique ferry from perhaps the late 1800s.

Low Water Levels Indicate Drought

Dennis Todey, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Midwest Climate Hub, explained this year’s situation on the upper Mississippi through Arkansas: “You’ve got a wide range of conditions. The background of this all is widespread dryness and drought across the central part of the U.S.”

Conditions are also dry in the Southwest, with a 22-year drought that is shrinking another iconic water body, Lake Mead, to a fraction of its former volume. Experts say it’s more than a drought; it’s long-term aridification.

Extensive drought conditions across large swaths of the U.S. in 2022 have cost more than $9 billion, but the dryness is marked less by intensity and more by sheer geographic size. About 81.8% of the contiguous United States were abnormally dry or in drought when recently measured. All 50 states have seen drought conditions in 2022.

Water Sector Implications

In September, Louisiana residents were warned that drinking water from the Mississippi had elevated sodium and chloride levels. With slackening river flows, a wedge of heavier saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico had seeped up the river bottom into the Delta. River flows got a little help from flood storage pools on the Ohio and Missouri rivers as they were drained to make way for winter storm runoff, but that didn’t change much.

Mississippi water levels are rising again, and hopes are high that the trend will continue. The record lows, along with low levels in Lake Mead, are a wakeup call about water risk. Lower stream flows and groundwater levels mean less dilution of contaminants, so drinking water treatment may need to become more intensive. More rainy season water storage is needed to prepare for dry times. And there’s no longer much justification for discharging fresh water after only one use.

At Seven Seas Water Group, our experience, resources, and vast supplier network allow our municipal and industrial clients to address their water risk flexibly with complete water cycle solutions. Our Water-as-a-Service® (WaaS®) offering provides a portfolio of financing options, encompassing public-private partnerships, build-own-operate, and build-own-operate-transfer performance-based structures that bundle long-term operations and maintenance with water assets.

With WaaS®, our clients can go back to doing what they do best, regardless of river stage, or the shortage of a primary water source. Contact our water professionals to become water resilient in an increasingly arid climate.

Image Credit: sepavo/123RF