Though we have had a minimal amount of moisture this year, Missouri and the central U.S. still remain extremely dry with as much as 15 inches below average rainfall. Effects of the prolonged dry conditions can be seen in not only the state’s crop production, but also in the lower water levels of lakes, ponds, streams, creeks, and rivers. Missouri’s two largest rivers—the Missouri River and the Mississippi River—are both at record low water levels. Consequently, this has created a major problem for the barge industry moving goods up and down the rivers.
Serving on the Agriculture Policy Committee in the House has made me aware of our state’s water transportation issues, and for the last two years we have closely followed the situation on both the Missouri and the Mississippi rivers. One of the things I have learned is that state government plays a minor role in policy-making for these waters. They come under the jurisdiction of the federal government. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are the main regulators of the rivers, while the U.S. Coast Guard serves to monitor conditions of and movements on these and other of our nation’s navigational waters.
As of this week, the most critical region on the Mississippi River is the one hundred-eighty-mile stretch from St. Louis to Cairo, Illinois. At Cairo, the Ohio River converges with the Mississippi and provides additional water that increases the overall depth of the river, and water depth is extremely important when moving barges. Smaller boats can get by with seven to eight feet of water, but towboats and barges require a nine to ten foot depth of water to operate safely. With lower than normal water levels on the Mississippi River, above Cairo near Thebes and where the Mississippi River makes a natural bend, there are rock formations creating major obstacles to barge traffic trying to move during this period of low water levels. At this time, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working to remove pinnacle rocks in the river, as well as blasting hindering rock formations in order to open a channel deep enough for barge traffic to navigate, and the Coast Guard is marking shallow spots and helping to direct the river traffic through these areas.
The depth of the Mississippi River from St. Louis to Cairo is largely regulated by dams located north of St. Louis. Water is released as needed from these dams, but the majority—60 percent, at least—of the water in the Mississippi River comes from the Missouri River. Water flow from reservoirs and dams at the headwaters of the Missouri River that finds its way into the Mississippi River is reduced seasonally by the Army Corps of Engineers. This restriction is to ensure that areas north of this location, such as in Nebraska, Montana, and South Dakota, have adequate water reserves for irrigation, town water usage, and recreational purposes. Because of the lack of rainfall, the Mississippi River is low to a point of being shut off to commercial barge traffic. A group of 15 U.S. Senators, 62 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and 3 state governors have written the Corps asking them to release more water into the Missouri River which can in turn raise the level of the Mississippi River so barge traffic can continue to move.
The entire situation is a delicate one that involves numerous people and multiple states trying to find a balanced approach to preserve shipping and yet manage water resources for next year. Keeping the nation’s largest and busiest waterway open and operational is of great concern to everyone.
Should the Mississippi River have to be closed to barge traffic, the economic effects will be substantial. Twenty thousand people are employed in the movement of goods on this river, resulting in a monthly payroll of about $65 million. Approximately $8 billion of merchandise is moved monthly on the river. Yearly, over $100 billion worth of merchandise moves up or down this waterway.
While we obviously need some good, heavy rains across the central U.S. to help replenish overall low water levels, our concerns now extend beyond just crops, vegetation, and ponds full of water. We are now seeing this severe lack of moisture adversely affect our state’s major navigational facilities. Let’s all pray for more rain.