Agriculture, shipping industries prepare for uncertainty on Mississippi River in the future
Two consecutive years of drought have disrupted shipping on the Mississippi River during the harvest season, and experts are warning farmers and barge operators that they may need to prepare for more uncertainty in the future.
While river transportation generates lower greenhouse gas emissions than railroads or trucking, is cheaper and offers higher carrying capacity, experts say climate change-driven weather events like drought, which are projected to be more severe in the future, could affect how and when crops are grown and shipped.
A typical 15-barge tow on the Mississippi can haul 22,500 tons of cargo -- or 787,500 bushels of grain -- which is equivalent to two and a quarter 100-car train units or 870 large semi-trucks, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
About 60% of U.S. grain for export is shipped via barge down the Mississippi River to the ports of New Orleans and South Louisiana, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System connects the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers via the White River. The system has been an "economic powerhouse" for Oklahoma and Arkansas, Army Corps of Engineers Little Rock District Public Affairs Chief Jay Townsend told a group of local engineers on a tour of Murray Lock and Dam in Little Rock earlier this month.
Goods and commodities from a dozen states are shipped down the Arkansas River from as far north as North Dakota and Montana, Townsend said. It takes about a week to a week and a half for a vessel to travel down the Arkansas River from the Port of Catoosa in Oklahoma to the Mississippi River if the river and all of the locks are running, said Murray Lock and Dam Site Supervisor Dakota Stover.
The estimated value of cargo shipped annually for both export and import along the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System is $24 billion, Townsend said.
Barge transport on the Mississippi River accounts for 92% of U.S. agricultural exports; an estimated 589 million tons of freight is moved on the river each year, with an estimated value of more than $405 billion annually, according to an Arkansas Farm Bureau Ag Insider report in October 2022.
Some of that traffic between the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers was stymied for several weeks in October this year because of low water near Montgomery Point Lock and Dam, which is two and a half hours southeast of Little Rock.
The Arkansas River was flowing at 3,000 cubic feet per second on the day of the tour.
"So it's really, really low at the moment, but what we're doing is we're capturing enough water for navigation," Townsend told the group.
"Just to give you some scale, we're at 3,000 cubic feet per second right now. The highest flows that we saw right here in the 2019 flood were 560,000 cubic feet [per] second."
A number of severe weather events in Arkansas over the past few years have affected the flow of river traffic and lock and dam operations, from the 2019 flood to a polar vortex in 2021 to drought in 2022 and 2023 that caused river levels to drop to record-low levels.
There was a flood event on the Mississippi River in 2011 and drought issues one year later.
It would be unprecedented to expect drought and low water levels on the Mississippi River next fall for a third year in a row based on modern historical records, said Jeffrey Graschel, National Weather Service Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center hydrologist, earlier this month.
"But certainly, we've never had two years in a row either," Graschel said.
"We do anticipate having heavier rainfall and more significant rainfall events, extreme events, during the wintertime. But on the other side of the coin, in the summertime, actually having more dry periods as well, as we go into the future, in looking at some of these long-range climate models."
Modern historical records provide information dating back almost 150 years, but the oldest records dating back to the late 19th century can't be compared with newer records because of numerous changes made on the Mississippi River, Graschel said.
"A lot of reservoirs have been put in place, a lot of levies have been put in place, so it makes it really challenging to be able to use those older records to compare to newer records," Graschel said.
The Army Corps has also made changes to the Mississippi, particularly near Memphis.
"The river has been shortened about 150 miles in that area back in the 1940s to improve the channels to allow for better navigation, so because of those changes, the river is actually becoming a little bit more efficient, particularly in the Memphis area," Graschel said.
The Mississippi River at Memphis is forecast to fall below the -10-feet mark by the end of November and remain below that level through mid-December, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's 28-Day River Level Probabilities graph.
If the Mississippi at Memphis is below -5 feet, it is characterized as low water conditions, Graschel said; the river at Memphis was at -8.37 feet on Thursday.
"I think the best we can say, is we know that [there is] potential for more extreme events on the Mississippi River from what we're seeing in the climate models," Graschel said.
In terms of being able to predict weather conditions on the Mississippi River next fall, Graschel said: "We do have forecasts that are produced for temperature and precipitation that will go out that far and those that are available can look at what probabilities there are above or below normal rainfall," Graschel said.
"From a long-term sense, we anticipate that we would probably see more drought years in the future based on what we're seeing from some of the long-range climate models, but I think we would also say too that we'll be seeing some more extreme events too, whether that's the Mississippi or smaller river systems across the area as well," Graschel said.
Corps officials said the agency is constantly evaluating improvement opportunities and making upgrades to ensure transportation of goods on the Mississippi River operates efficiently and reliably; officials said the agency is prepared to react quickly when severe weather events like drought occur.
At a news conference on Nov. 8 regarding low water levels on the river, Donny Davidson, Memphis District deputy district engineer for programs and project management, said effective governance, rapid responses from the Corps and partner agencies, lining up necessary funding and watching early for signs of low water were some lessons learned from then-record-low water levels on the Mississippi last year.
"We really started bringing in our partners and our fellow divisions, our fellow districts and the [U.S.] Coast Guard a lot earlier and it just paid dividends with where we are today," Davidson said.
"We built better relationships and made those relationships work better the last two years in a row. ... I think we are collectively, everyone involved, getting better at getting ahead of this, at knowing what the signs are and knowing how we have to react earlier to minimize that impact."
Drought is also affecting farmers, who will need to adapt crop management strategies to battle climate change, said Elvis Elli, assistant professor of crop physiology at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
Elli began working at the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station in September and is using models to predict how crops might respond to environmental changes and learning how crops can be more resilient to these changes.
"Water is a major limitation to global food production, not only here in Arkansas," Elli said last week.
"There are problems with drought events all around the world and here in Arkansas, it is of particular importance because most of the cropland areas are irrigated. The amount of rainfall we get isn't enough to meet the crop requirements over its cycle, so there is a very heavy dependence on irrigation for most of the crops here in Arkansas.
"There is also an observed depletion in the groundwater and for the future, we need to develop some strategies to use water more efficiently in agriculture or alleviate [and] avoid yield losses due to water deficit," Elli said.
The largest commodity crop produced in Arkansas is soybeans with 3.15 million acres harvested last year, up 5% from 2021, according to the USDA's annual Crop Production Report for Arkansas in January.
Nearly 85% of soybeans in the state are irrigated, according to the Arkansas Farm Bureau's website.
"While drought is a topic of concern, we also have projected increased temperatures in the future," Elli said. "We have large uncertainties in the rainfall projections for the future. We are more confident in speaking about future temperatures over speaking about future rainfall events. Projections indicate that the number of extreme events is expected to increase in the future. Not necessarily the total amount of rainfall at the end of the year will change, but the distribution of it over the year is expected to change."
Some strategies that will be key for farmers in combating climate change are adapting planting dates, plant population and crop relative maturity to maintain good yield levels and potentially use less water; breeding is also important, specifically identifying genotypes that could use water more efficiently or that are more drought tolerant, Elli said.
"The management strategies need to be identified for target environments," Elli said.
BARGE MOVEMENT STYMIED
Delayed barge traffic on the Mississippi affects the economies in states along the river.
"It radiates out from where the problem spots are but also, different regions of the country have better ways to alleviate the problem," Iowa State University Extension Economist and Crop Markets Specialist Chad Hart said in October.
Barge freight rates were elevated this year but not as bad as last year, and some transporters may have pivoted from using river barges to the rail system or trucks to ship agricultural products this year.
Corn and soybean markets in Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and southern Missouri were affected by low water levels on the Mississippi this fall, Hart said.
There are alternative ways to move crops, Hart said. Soybeans can be transported via rail to another port and be exported from there, though this affects prices.
Grain elevators will also feel a pinch when Mississippi River water levels dip.
"Because the grain elevators ... they are trying to buy fertilizer from suppliers and buy crops from the farmers and then they are turning around and selling the fertilizer to the farmers and selling the crops to somebody else down the river," Hart said.
"So a lot of their profit margins depend upon their efficient and effective use of freight, of transportation, and as those costs go higher, it definitely impacts their bottom line."
Barge movement on the Mississippi River has been below the three-year average since April and that gap widened significantly between June and October, essentially remaining below normal all summer.
"So are we through this? I would say no. The pressure builds up throughout the harvest," Hart said. "That pressure will continue to build until basically December."
Lower barge movement along the river indicates a lot of farmers are storing grain until spring, Hart said.
Hart said the time when farmers may be able to get better prices for grain depends on three factors: how river levels change in the coming weeks, whether water levels increase enough to increase barge capacity, and demand from countries like Mexico, China and European Union nations. If foreign countries purchase more, it will drive prices up and incentivize farmers to sell crops, which increases pressure to move crops down the river.
GRAIN STORAGE NEEDS UNMET
The Mississippi River rose a little in early November after record lows in late October.
But navigation conditions are not expected to improve before late December or early January, according to the USDA's Grain Transportation Report on Oct. 19.
Continued low river levels could motivate farmers to hold crops to sell later, which could put pressure on local storage systems.
Most states have an on-farm storage deficit each year and states along the Mississippi River like Missouri, Ohio and Indiana have below-average storage availability this year on top of prolonged low river levels.
"I think we're going to see a big boom in on-farm storage, especially if we continue to see river levels decline," Grant Gardner, agriculture economist and commodity marketing professor at the University of Kentucky, said in October.
"If you're looking at last year, probably around November, we saw things clear up. If you could store that crop past the time when barge freight rates returned to normal, you weren't really going to take as large of a hit due to those declining river levels."
There were times after harvest this year that Kansas farmers held back grain for better prices, Kansas State University agriculture economist Logan Britton said in October.
"If the [storage] capacity is not there, then we're seeing some farmers just have piles of grain within their farms," Britton said.