The Van Trump Report

Problems Stacking Up on the Mississippi River

There is a lot going wrong on the Mighty Mississippi this year. Plummeting water levels have disrupted transportation and industry while low flows have allowed saltwater to push upstream, threatening drinking water supplies. With harvest season in full swing, the compounding problems could not come at a worse time with barges transporting a shrinking amount of grain at rapidly increasing prices. Unfortunately, experts think the situation will get worse before it gets better. Below is a little more information about what’s going on with the Mississippi River system and what it means for farmers and the ag industry.
About the Mississippi River System: The Mississippi River is an extensive ecological and commercial transportation network that helps make US exports competitive worldwide. From its traditional source of Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota, it flows generally south for 2,340 miles to the Mississippi River Delta in the Gulf of Mexico. With its many tributaries, the Mississippi’s watershed drains all or parts of 32 US states and two Canadian provinces between the Rocky and Appalachian mountains. The Mississippi River basin produces 92% of the nation’s agricultural exports, 78% of the world’s exports in feed grains and soybeans, and most of the livestock produced nationally.

Drought History: The Great Plains and Mississippi River corridor have experienced a number of severe drought events in the last 100 years, including droughts of the early 1930s, 1988, and 2012. The 2012 Great Plains drought was among the most damaging, leading to nearly $35 billion in direct losses for the US, including closing the Mississippi River at least three times. An interesting logistical reaction also occurred. Rather than sending corn to export ports near New Orleans at high cost (either on the river or via more expensive overland modes), many marketers instead sold corn into upriver domestic markets for use in animal feed or ethanol. US corn exports fell -52% from the year before, making it one of the few years that the US was not the world’s leading corn exporter.  

Current Conditions:
The biggest problem for the Mississippi River levels is the lack of rain upstream in the Midwest. Nearly all of the Mississippi River basin, from Minnesota through Louisiana, has seen below-normal rainfall since late August, according to the National Weather Service. Water levels in the lower Mississippi, as well as on the Ohio River (a tributary of the Mississippi River) at Cincinnati, Ohio, recently hit near record lows. The river has been closed at different points this month for dredging after barges have gotten stuck. Groundings have been driving intermittent closures of 12-36 hrs daily over the past month.

Barge Traffic Impacts: As a result of the low water levels, barges have to be loaded with less cargo. As of October 17, drafts were reduced to just 9 feet in both directions, which amounts to a 24%-30% reduction from the amount each barge can carry under normal conditions, according to American Commercial Barge Line. The industry has also agreed to a 25-barge max tow size, reflecting a 17-38% reduction in tow size. With fewer boats and less cargo, barge rates have skyrocketed. The cost of sending a ton of grain from St. Louis to southern Louisiana reached $105.85 on October 11, according to data compiled by the USDA, versus $49.88 on September 27, and $28.45 at this same time in 2021.

New Saltwater Snag: The US Army Corps of Engineers has launched construction on a 1,500-foot-wide underwater levee in the Mississippi River to prevent saltwater from pushing up the river and threatening drinking water supplies. The corps is dredging sediment from the bottom of the river and piling it up near Myrtle Grove, Louisiana, to create what’s known as a sill, which will act as a dam for the denser saltwater in the lower levels of the river. The last time a sill was built at the mouth of the river was in 2012. Officials say the problem typically resolves itself once there’s enough rainfall upstream to restore river flow.

When Will Conditions Improve: Meteorologists say that the river’s water levels are normally low at this time of a year but a front in the upper Midwest or a tropical system off the Gulf will typically bump water levels enough to bridge the time from dry summers to wetter winters. However, rain in the Midwest hasn’t provided enough water to fill tributaries that feed the river this year. The forecast from the Climate Prediction Center is dry, with below-average rainfall expected through at least October 23. Long-term forecasts from the National Weather Service have the river continuing to drop to 10 feet below its normal stage through November 3. (Sources: Corps of Engineers, ACBL, Reuters, Marine Log)

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