Drought Hampers Mississippi River Transportation
The Mississippi River system is the geographic core of the United States. This large network of navigable rivers, running through a vast area of farmland, has contributed to the United States' inherent economic advantage. But along with much of the country, the Midwest is suffering its worst drought in over 50 years. This drought has adversely affected crop yields and global food prices.
The current area of concern is a stretch of river between St. Louis, Missouri, and Cairo, Illinois. Here, the levels of the Mississippi River are falling and are projected to fall even further in the coming weeks to the point where barge traffic could be restricted as low water levels expose rock formations and could reduce the draft (and thus the weight) of barges allowed through.
The drought's not the only factor affecting the Mississippi. Every year, Congress directs the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reduce the flow of the Missouri River into the Mississippi in order to provide adequate water supplies upstream. This is happening now, causing water levels in the Mississippi to fall even further. But if the Corps stops this process and allows the Missouri to flow into the Mississippi at a normal rate, it could threaten the water supply of areas upstream on the Missouri river, as there would be less water stored in reservoirs.
Transport along the Mississippi River is vital for many industries; especially those that move bulk freight. Roughly 60 percent of exported grain moves from farms in the Midwest, along the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi also moves 20 percent of U.S. coal used for electricity and 22 percent of its petroleum goods. Billions of dollars are at stake and the economic impact could even reach beyond the United States. The U.S. is a major grain exporter -- sending it to countries including Japan, South Korea and Egypt, and that grain could see increased prices because of delays or increased cost of alternative transport.
Government representatives from affected states have petitioned for immediate action from the president and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to halt or delay the water management activities along the Missouri and to expedite plans to remove potentially troublesome rock formations between St. Louis and Cairo. Upstream states, which are dependent on the Missouri as a source of water, countered with a letter of their own asking that the current management plan be maintained, arguing that it is unlawful to halt the regulation of the Missouri River's water to benefit transport on the Mississippi River.
The debate between the competing needs of the Missouri and the Mississippi river basins remains unresolved. Even so a resolution could come too late to fully buffer the effects on transport. Barge operators are already reducing loads for safer passage, and with formal restrictions to barge traffic and possible closures along the Mississippi seemingly inevitable, there will be increasing demand for other more expensive forms of transportation.