National Geographic News
A barge pilot on the Mississippi River.

A pilot oversees navigation equipment while directing grain barges on the Mississippi River.

Photograph by Daniel Acker, Bloomberg/Getty Images

Johnna Rizzo

National Geographic News

Published January 31, 2013

Woe is the Mississippi. A barge carrying light crude hit a bridge near Vicksburg, Mississippi, on Sunday, causing an oil spill.

But if you think that is the worst thing that's happened this winter to the river, you'd be wrong.

The middle Mississippi—the 200-mile (322-kilometer) stretch from St. Louis to Cairo, Illinois—is experiencing drought conditions unrivaled in the last 50 years. That's been the case  since November.

From December to March, this part of the river is always at its lowest because extra feed from the Missouri is cut off when that river's navigation season ends. The Mississippi typically loses about three feet at St. Louis as a result.

But this winter the river has lost more depth, since spring ice melt and rains weren't forthcoming and reservoirs that help feed the river didn't get filled.

The result is that transport along the Mississippi is down dramatically. In December, total barge cargo was down more than 1,100 kilotons from December 2011. (Video: Drought 101)

Barges have had to lighten their loads considerably to avoid bottoming out. Right now barges on the middle Mississippi can only afford to sink 9 feet (2.7 meters) into the water, some only 8 feet (2.4 meters). They usually run 12 feet (3.7 meters) deep, more laden with goods to get them to market faster and cheaper.

If that doesn't sound like a lot, consider that barges lose about a hundred tons of capacity for each 6 inches (15 centimeters) less deep they can sink in the water.

According to the American Waterways Operators (AWO), in December and January alone more than $7 billion worth of goods was at risk of not reaching their destination.

"It's not like someone is going to put up a sign and say the Mississippi River is closed, but there's not very many vessels that can move in those conditions," says AWO spokesperson Ann McCulloch.  (Read "Road Trip on the Northern Mississippi.)

One of the effects is that farmers on the middle Mississippi, the drought-strapped area, are paying a dollar more to ship each bushel of crops than are farmers on the lower Mississippi, who can fully load barges before sending them down the river, says Joe Kellett, deputy district engineer at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' St. Louis District.

For middle Miss farmers, it's more trips—so higher fuel costs—with less cargo.

Spreading the Costs of Drought

If you don't live along the waterway, likely you don't think often of the Mississippi beyond its Huckleberry Finn-fueled place in American mythology.

But you should be thinking of Big Muddy in more concrete terms. If you live in the United States and many other parts of the world, the Mississippi carries an awful lot of stuff you use every day—corn, cement, coal, and crude oil, among other things.

And the Mississippi is more central on the world stage than those who don't live beside it realize.

"Harvest to market also means Centralia, Illinois, to Tokyo," says Mike Peterson, a spokesman with the Army Corps of Engineers, which constructs and maintains the riverbed of the Mississippi, kind of like a watery Department of Transportation. He notes that Japan gets 90 percent of its livestock feed off the river.

When one of the river lock's gates broke during the 1997 harvest season, Jack Yui of Japan's Zen-Noh grain corporation sent a fax to the corps' lockmaster: "I need to know when lock and dam 27 will be repaired to know if the government will need to release the grain reserves of Japan," it read. Yui wanted a daily report.

He likely wasn't the only one. Sixty percent of farm exports for the entire U.S.—largely corn and soybeans—move along the Mississippi.

"We are blessed to have our great breadbasket and river system line up," says Dave Busse, the chief of engineering and construction for the corps' St. Louis District.  "In Brazil, they grow soybeans but spend a lot to get it to the water. The Nile [and] Congo don't have much grain around them."

And choked-off agricultural exports can affect Americans  too. If Kobe cattle can't get their feed, for instance, fancy burger prices would soar in the U.S.

There are plenty of other domestic implications. If road salt, shipped only in the winter months, can't shimmy northward, northern towns are hard-pressed to deal with icy streets. Fertilizer can't make it to farms for spring planting.

As the oil spill suggests, the Mississippi is carting petroleum and crude, too. Barges and tankers carried almost 48,000 barrels from the Midwest to the Gulf Coast in 2011, nearly double the amount in 2007.

It's important for other energy sources as well. If the river doesn't run at full capacity, coal from West Virginia is slow to get to St. Louis, where it fuels the power plant that fires the Anheuser-Busch factory there, one of only a handful of places in the U.S. where Budweiser gets made.

There are dozens of other power plants that pepper the river's shores that also rely on it to get coal.

How to Run a River

The Army Corps of Engineers is tasked by Congress to maintain the Mississippi as a channel that's 9 feet (2.7 meters) deep and 300 feet (91 meters) wide.

It's often a bit wider in the bends: Tugs have to tow through bends sideways, a process called planking, then let the flow turn the barges straight.

Tugs pulling rafts of 15 barges at a time—three wide and five deep—can fit through the middle Mississippi simultaneously and often do.

During winter the river is typically helped by a system of reservoirs, which allows the corps to keep the Mississippi running at its prescribed height and depth.

Water control managers make decisions on whether and how much to tap reservoirs every two hours, all day, every day.

They have to be vigilant. Water levels in the last year have dropped more than 30 feet (9 meters) from 2011's flood to current conditions.

The drought is challenging reservoirs already stretched to their limit; they didn't get enough rain to fill them enough to start with. "There's an entire ballet going on to squeeze every last drop out of the system to make sure the river stays open without impacting the other purposes of those reservoirs," says Kellett.

During a drought, the corps' annual dredging is even more important. The typical dredging season in St. Louis runs from July to December, when flow is at its lightest, to keep sediments deposited by the flow from building up.

"It's repetitive," says Busse. "The next time the water comes up, all that work disappears."

This year's dredging is more intense. "We're gathering close to twice as much as a regular year, and we're going out earlier and staying out later," says Petersen.

As a more drastic measure, the corps is in the process of lowering the river bottom at Thebes, Illinois, removing limestone and shale pinnacles that range in size from that of a bowling ball to that of a small car and that can make navigation impossible if the water goes any lower.

In the meantime, engineers have been releasing just enough extra water from reservoirs to keep navigation moving. "It was a fight of inches," says Busse.

There is 12 days-worth left of supplemental water. Busse says pinnacle removal should be completed before that water runs out. For now at least, engineering seems to be outpacing natural disaster.

Kellett notes that current low water levels are not unprecedented in the modern era. The year 1963 saw a similar low.

"The river is cyclical—in the '40s, the '60s, the '80s, the early 2000s—every other decade or so we have hit these levels of lows," he says. "What I don't know is the role that climate change is playing here."

The long-term National Weather Service forecast is for temperatures above normal, which dry out soil and evaporate more water.

"What we know is that droughts rarely occur for only one year," says Busse.

What Might the Oil Spill Do?

The lower Mississippi—the stretch from Cairo, Illinois, south to the Gulf of Mexico—had been running at normal capacity because it's fed by the Ohio River, a healthy-size tributary.

But that's the part affected by Sunday's spill.

The barge was carrying 80,000 gallons (303,000 liters) of light crude. About 7,000 gallons (26,000 liters) of oil wasn't in the tank where it should be; it's undetermined how much seeped into Big Muddy.

The Coast Guard, the river's traffic cop, closed the waterway for the cleanup.

Compared to drought effects, the spill is a shorter-term problem. The last oil spill on the Mississippi, 10,000 gallons (38,000 liters) last February, was resolved in less than a day. In 2008, 283,000 gallons (1 million liters) shut off the waterway for just six days.

This week, 5,300 feet (1615 meters) of booms helped block flow downstream toward the Gulf, and workers have skimmed 7,650 gallons (29,000 liters) of oil-and-water mixture so far.

But the cleanup has slowed traffic on the Mississippi even more.

"It will stay closed until we can safely move traffic without impeding the cleanup efforts," said chief petty officer Bobby Nash of the U.S. Coast Guard on Tuesday. The 16-mile affected stretch opened with restrictions at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday.

As of Thursday afternoon, 52 tugs bearing 844 barges—377 headed north and 467 south—were sitting and waiting.

10 comments
paul thornton
paul thornton

just open the floodgates from the great lakes and flush the whole mess out.

Mark River
Mark River

The Mississippi Rive and it's tributaries are the circlulatory system of our country. Not only is it responsible for 10 percent of our gross national product, but it is essential for thousands of species -from amphibians, reptiles, mammals , and birds , for reproduction purposes. It also supplies 18 million people with water daily.The rise and fall annually, is important for the cycle of all life. Floods and droughts are necessary. You can't put a dollar amount on the importance of our great river. It is the most important resource of our country. Let's treat it as such. Protect it for genarations to come.

morgan cadle
morgan cadle

to solve droughts though we may wish to refreeze the arctic you can do this with  combination of methods 

1) put satillites to orbit between the sun and the artic attach fans that reflect heat back into the atmosphere and have them like sunglasses that cast a shadow over the artic this shadow lowers the temp from above the surface

2) use purifiers on boats to extract salt content -salt levels dictate the temp of freezing the less salt the easier to freeze -you could even sell the sea salt extracted from the area to pay for the project 

3) using thin netting and put around the artic and supercool the water-the cold water cooled at the surface will fall and warmer water will rise and then can be cooled and you have a cooling cycle in the area making ice easier to form 

by refreezing the arctic you reduce the sea levels by extracting salt it will increase growth of life at the bottom of the oceans you will ahve a larger reflective area to reflect heat from the earth

one of the big problems with oil in the ocean is the refraction of the suns rays and the light spectrum created by the oil under the water -the oceans surly work of photosynthesis so you alter the light spectrum you alter the environment and the balance you can apply the same principle to pollution -the more pollution the more the change in the light colors that reach earths surface changing photosynthesis in plants 

just a thought

morgan cadle
morgan cadle

why not recreate the water cycle to solve droughts -i mean all you have to do is to heat water in either reservoirs -this evaporates- using electromagnetic (every molecule has a charge so you can attract them to where they need to be )the hotter the water the faster the molecules rise and the lower they condense because of the sudden change in temperature as the molecules rise to a height you could use a similar system to the new Dyson air coolers to cool air so the molecules condense and form water droplets that then fall on the drought area using this technique you could constantly refill the basin -by just using science you could solve droughts all over the world-it would help if they opened the dams though -it is important to the oceans as the main problem is the salinity levels because increase evaporation from global warming the more concentrated the salt which is heavier so sinks to the bottom causing algae etc to die which is the food for small fish which the larger fish feed on so the food chain dies out-the water from the dams will dilute the oceans -wash in diluted fertilizers from the land that will help the algae grow and more food for the bottom of the food chain and by using water cycle replicators you don't have to worry about having no water to fill the dams -also a constant flow of water and new rivers help crop land s so farmers can grow crops again

just a thought

Dean Klinkenberg
Dean Klinkenberg

Woe is the Mississippi is certainly correct, but not because of the low water but rather because of the damage we have caused to the river by making it passable for larger and larger boats. And woe is the state of National Geographic for publishing an error-prone piece that is essentially an extended press release from shipping interests. I'll skip the Kobe beef error, since that's already been noted but about those northern towns that need road salt in winter? They aren't getting it delivered by the boat. A large stretch of the Upper Mississippi River freezes in winter, and the lock and dam system is closed from roughly December to March for much of the upper river. I suppose we could ship salt by sled dog over the ice, but that's not the way it's done right now.

The Corps and shipping companies have a vested interest in maintaining the fiction that the whole country benefits directly from shipping by river, but, to put it mildly, they overstate their case. The primary beneficiaries of shipping by river are a handful oflarge corporations (barge companies, food processing firms, a few large corporate farms, etc.). Rather than just repeat the questionable economic claims of industry groups, is it possible that National Geographic could spend some time fact-checking these assertions and searching out answers to the bigger (unasked) questions raised by the latest interruption to river shipping? Questions like:

Why do we have a transportation system that is so dependent on one route, a route that is subject to natural variations that sometimes makes it unusable (and a large portion of which is closed every year because it freezes)? Shipping interests pay a very small portion of the costs of building, maintaining and operating the navigation system on the Mississippi. Why is that? What does it say about the business model of an industry that claims it can't operate without huge subsidies from US taxpayers? What impact has remaking the Mississippi for navigation had on the river environment. Why do shipping interests alone get to set the agenda for the Mississippi River at the expense of every other river stakeholder and the river's ecosystem? Why hasn't National Geographic already run this piece?

Michele Breaux
Michele Breaux

A lot of barges hit that bridge in Vicksburg - I'm not sure why that is..

Joseph Berchmans
Joseph Berchmans

It is a sad situation. Sad that the river is low, sad that so many people are affected, and really sad that there are no comments yet, which tells me fewer people care about learning about this lifeline than those reading and arguing through comments over relatively trivial matters. Hmm!

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