Drought improves on Mississippi River. Officials hope for winter relief

A record-breaking drought across the Mississippi River Basin is finally beginning to ease, federal officials said.

Low water levels impacted shipping and grain exports this fall by slowing shipments from the Midwest to the Port of New Orleans. Saltwater began moving north from the Gulf of Mexico, threatening drinking water supplies.

Now water levels are beginning to rise in the Lower Mississippi, which stretches downstream from Cairo, Illinois, south of Cape Girardeau to the Gulf.

Months of drought across the Mississippi River basin, which drains more than 40% of the contiguous United States’ landmass, has caused record lows in the river’s water levels, despite concentrated heavy rains in July that caused flooding in St. Louis and eastern Kentucky.

In a briefing, officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US Army Corps of Engineers and the US Department of Agriculture said they are continuously dredging sediment to deepen the river channel, limit barges and impose restrictions on tugboats to prevent grounding. The Coast Guard monitors depths and installs safety markings for vessels.

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The Army Corps is dredging the middle stretch of the Mississippi River, stretching from St. Louis to Cairo, to maintain a workable riverbed depth, said Col. Andy Pannier of the Mississippi Valley Division.

“We are currently confident that our dredging work will keep the river open,” Pannier said, adding that recent rains have alleviated drought conditions in some parts of the South and the Lower Mississippi River likely won’t require the same level of attention.

Paul Rohde, vice president of industry agency Waterways Council Inc. in the Midwest region, said when the drought was at its worst in October, more than 3,000 barges were blocked. The slowdown, he said, has cost billions of dollars. Now, with the restrictions in place and the constant dredging of channels, the industry remains in a “stabilized crisis,” he said.

June through October was the 11th driest such five-month stretch in 128 years for the Upper Missouri and Upper Mississippi basins, said Victor Murphy, program manager with the National Weather Service.

Then in September the Ohio River Basin, which drains 60% of the water into the Lower Mississippi, experienced an extreme drought that worsened an already dire situation. It was “the final nail in the coffin for the drought,” Murphy said.

Most summers, tropical storms and hurricanes bring rainfall to the Gulf Coast and inland areas, but not this year. The lack of rain from storms combined with the effects of La NiƱa made for an unusually dry autumn.

Pannier called the lack of storms “a true boon to those in Louisiana who have suffered in recent years.” But, he added, “it ends up being a curse because we can’t get the rain over the Ohio Valley.”

Officials said above-average precipitation forecasts for parts of the watershed this winter could help improve conditions further.

Scientists say climate change will continue to bring extreme weather, whether it’s increased rainfall or extreme droughts. This fall’s drought could be a harbinger of the challenges ahead for the Mississippi River shipping industry.

This story is a product of Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with Report For America and the Society of Environmental Journalists, and funded by the Walton Family Foundation .