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Experts: Low Ohio, Mississippi river levels a cause for concern

Derek Operle

Despite recent rains, some experts are still concerned about the near-record low water levels along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

Experts have concerns these low levels could have detrimental effects on the U.S. economy.

This drop of the water stages throughout the Mississippi and Ohio river basins was brought on by a lack of rainfall over the past couple of months. National Weather Service hydrologist Mary Lamm said this drought started with dry weather in July.

“Right now, we're in some pretty low water for this time of year, and not really expecting it to change too much,” she said. “We had one of our driest stretches between the first part of August through the mid part of October, where we saw very little in the way of rainfall. It wasn't just here in Paducah, it was around our whole region. So all of that kind of compounds upon itself where you know, bad enough, we don't get water here in this area, but we don't have water that flows into the area.”

Water gauges along the two rivers have seen depths fluctuate with some recent rainfall and some passages along the Mississippi have even been closed to commercial traffic in October as levels dwindled with the dry weather. Some gauges along the Mississippi have been reading in the negative for weeks. Gauges in Memphis recorded a record low of -10.71 feet on Oct. 17, beating the mark set in 1988.

Deb Calhoun is the senior vice president at the Waterways Council, a national public policy organization that lobbies on behalf of commercial operators and shippers moving on the U.S.’s inland waterways. She says the fall is a “particularly disruptive” time for low water levels to occur.

“This is a really crucial time for harvest and agricultural products to move to the export market and to feed the world,” Calhoun said. “Commerce is moving – albeit quite slowly and inefficiently at this time – and we have to wait until dredging is finished before queues can be cleared by the industry and the barges can move on.”

She says the low levels make navigation difficult for barge companies that move crops, coal and other cargo along the rivers, which have seen traffic slow as boats await dredging to make for safe passage. To safely navigate these more shallow waters, many companies have had to change the way they operate – sometimes sending much smaller groups of barges downriver than usual.

“What it means for commercial operators is that they've had to ‘light load’ barges from a normal 40 to 46 barges lashed together down to a tow configuration of 25 or less barges,” Calhoun said. “Now, you will see sizable numbers of barges stacked up and waiting and also in fleeting areas that look like a parking lot for barges.”

More than 500 million tons of freight valued at more than $100 billion typically flow along the Mississippi River, according to government data. Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Grain Transportation Report said grain barge shipments were down about 37% from the five-year average as the marine industry faced low water levels unseen since the 1988 drought.

Calhoun said the Russian war in Ukraine has American agricultural products and coal in high demand. She said this slowdown has grain facilities in the gulf preparing for a 20% reduction in fall harvest loading capacity.

“Exported coal coming from southern Illinois is headed to Europe to try to pick up the slack from Russia,” she said. “France has already asked citizens to keep thermostats low.”

Local water supplies in southern Illinois, western Kentucky and western Tennessee could become more of a concern in the region if this dry spell continues. The city of Cairo, which sits on the Illinois side of the Ohio River, switched its supply to groundwater earlier in October as the water level threatened to sink below the intake pipes.

“The alternate supply was constructed to support reliable water service in the event of low Ohio River levels,” said Mike Brown, operation superintendent for the Cairo District of Illinois American Water, in a release. “Drinking water remains safe to drink and meets all drinking water standards.”

These extremely low river levels are causing agencies in multiple states along the Ohio and Mississippi to do some things outside the norm.

Downstream, the U.S. Army Corps Engineers are combating the flow of saltwater upstream from the Gulf of Mexico into the lower reaches of the Mississippi. Typically, the flow of the river prevents saltwater from moving very far upriver, but now the Corps is constructing an underwater sill to block the heavy saltwater along the riverbed.

Upstream, in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, a local landmark called Tower Rock usually sits surrounded by the flowing Mississippi. Now, you can hike to it. The Missouri Department of Conservation has urged visitors to the landmark to “explore nature safely” and take caution when hiking near the river.

Though some rain fell in western Kentucky and upstream in Missouri and Illinois on Tuesday, Lamm thinks it’s going to take precipitation from multiple systems or one very large system to get the region out of this dry spell.

“We're just waiting for a change in the overall weather pattern,” the NWS hydrologist said. “It will take quite a bit of rain though and several, several events before we really start bringing ourselves out of the drought, but unfortunately – I hate to say it – when we have a drought this significant, what it usually takes is a tropical event where we have the remnants of tropical storm that comes out through the Gulf [of Mexico] up the Mississippi Valley.”

Lamm thinks droughts like this may be a more common phenomenon in years to come.

“I think we're going to see these events more and more you know, everybody talks about climate change – and it is real,” she said. “We are going to see episodes of very heavy rainfall, but at the same time we could turn around a little bit later and be in a drought such as this.”

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