Water, water … nowhere: Dropping Mississippi River raises concerns

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Published: December 29,2012

Tags: barge traffic, Mississippi River, transportation

Mississippi River

Mississippi River

One year removed from a massive, historic flood, the Mississippi River has dominated headlines in 2012 as it falls to near record lows, threatening navigation and devastating economic losses.

Usually fed by rain and snowmelt in the spring, the Father of Rivers began to fall as drought gripped a large portion of the U.S. By June, media began running stories of increasing concerns over keeping the river and its ports open to barge traffic.

The drought across much of the country actually aided the state’s agriculture community. Timely rains here and drought-related losses suffered by farmers in other states meant local producers generally had plenty to sell and enjoyed strong market prices (MBJ, Aug. 20 edition: “Cashing in on drought”).

Other market sectors were not as fortunate. Entities as disparate as Isle of Capri Casinos and the Tennessee Valley Authority were reporting losses due to the historically dry conditions

But, it was the industries served by the Mississippi River that began to feel the full impact of the drought as navigating the river became increasingly difficult. Hundreds of barges were stopped by a low stretch of river near Greenville in August, and the American Queen paddle wheeler, launched that month from Vicksburg with much fanfare, promptly found itself stranded in Memphis in her first week of operation.

Rains from Hurricane Isaac in late August and early September brought little relief, and by November the situation had reached crisis level. Public officials, including Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Sen. Roger Wicker, began appealing to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release more water from lakes and reservoirs to the north and other efforts to help keep barges moving on the Mississippi.

As this month began, the state’s river ports and the industry and communities the Mississippi supports were growing more pessimistic about the future of barge traffic. Tommy Hart, director of the Port of Greenville, told the Mississippi Business Journal that if the river dropped at the rate predicted, the port “would have to curtail whatever we’re doing or change our methods” (MBJ, Nov. 30 edition: “Historically low river at Greenville likely to drop farther”).

And, still the river drops. Two weeks ago, Corps crews began work to remove rock pinnacles blocking the Mississippi to the north, and the work was progressing slowly; but, two Corps commanders said they were “guardedly optimistic” that the river would not close to barge traffic.

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