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Mississippi River drought a ‘stabilized crisis’

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Mississippi River drought a ‘stabilized crisis

An aerial photo from October shows low river levels around Tower Rock on the Mississippi River at Grand Tower, Ill. (Reece Streufert, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

A record-breaking drought throughout the Mississippi River basin is finally beginning to ease, federal officials say.

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Low water levels impacted barge traffic and grain exports this fall by slowing shipments from the Midwest to the Port of New Orleans. Now, water levels are beginning to rise in the Lower Mississippi River, which extends downstream from Cairo, Ill., to the Gulf of Mexico in southeastern Louisiana.

Months of dry conditions throughout the Mississippi River basin, which drains more than 40 percent of the contiguous United States’ land mass, have led to record lows in the river’s water levels despite bouts of concentrated heavy rainfall in July that caused flooding in St. Louis and Eastern Kentucky.

In a briefing, officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture said earlier this month they are continually dredging sediment to deepen the river channel, restricting barge loads and imposing limits on tow boats to prevent groundings. The Coast Guard is monitoring depths and continually installing safety markers for ships.

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The Army Corps is dredging the middle stretch of the Mississippi River, which extends from St. Louis to Cairo in order to maintain workable riverbed depths, said Col. Andy Pannier of the Mississippi Valley Division.

Dredge Jadwin, an Army Corps of Engineers dredging vessel, powers south down the Mississippi River on Oct. 19 past Commerce, Mo. The lack of rainfall in recent weeks has left the Mississippi River approaching record low levels in areas from Missouri south through Louisiana, disrupting barge and other traffic along the river as the Army Corps works to keep barge traffic moving. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

“We remain confident at this time that our dredging operations will keep the river open,” Pannier said, adding that recent rains have alleviated drought conditions in some of the south, and the Lower Mississippi River likely won’t require the same level of attention.

James Isaacks walks Oct. 20 where the normally wide Mississippi River would flow near Portageville, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

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

June to 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 at the National Weather Service.

Then in September, the Ohio River Basin, which dumps 60 percent of the water flow into the Lower Mississippi River, experienced an extreme “flash” drought, worsening an already dire situation. It was “the final nail in the coffin for the dryness,” Murphy said.

Most summers, tropical storms and hurricanes bring precipitation to the Gulf Coast and heartland, but not this year. The lack of rain from storms, combined with the impacts of La Niña, have made for an unusually dry fall.

Pannier called the lack of storms “truly a blessing to those in Louisiana that have suffered over the last couple of years.” But, he added, “it ends up being a curse because we don’t get the rain across the Ohio Valley.”

Officials said above-normal precipitation forecast for parts of the watershed this winter could help continue to improve conditions.

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

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