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Mississippi River levels return to normal

February 23, 2024   St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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After low Mississippi River levels caused shipping disruptions last fall, water levels have improved.


Deb Calhoun, senior vice president of Waterways Council, Inc., said low river levels have been a frequent obstacle in recent years.

“I’m happy to report that things are looking great out there,” she said. “After two years of low levels and extreme conditions, we have a great-moving river right now.”


The Mississippi River, nicknamed the “Father of Waters,” runs through the heart of a vast swath of fertile farmland in the middle of the country. Combined with the Ohio, Illinois and Missouri rivers, it provides a water highway to move ag products and exports. The Mississippi and the river system allow crop export access to the Gulf of Mexico and then the rest of the world.


“More than 60% of grain exports move on the inland waterways,” Calhoun said, “and it is the most cost-effective way for farm families to reach global markets.”


Joan Stemler works as chief of water control for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ St. Louis District. She said Mississippi River levels have recovered from last fall’s lows thanks to some rains and melting snow around St. Louis and up the river.

“We have gotten back to average,” Stemler said Feb. 13. “Today we’re actually above average.”


She said through the month of February, the average Mississippi River levels at St. Louis go up, but the current forecast calls for river levels to fall with no major rain events on the horizon and a lack of additional snowmelt at the moment.

“In the Upper Mississippi, the concerning part is no snow pack up there,” Stemler said.


She said upcoming releases from the reservoirs on the Missouri River to support navigation will help, although the in-flows into those reservoirs are currently lower than typical for this time of year.


“My feeling is if we don’t get the rains, we’re going to have issues again,” Stemler said.


Low-cost transport

Sifferath said the Mississippi and other major rivers are an asset for U.S. farmers in the global export market.

“With our strong competition in South America, we need to be able to move grain efficiently,” Sifferath said. “Moving grain in barges down the river system is extremely efficient and low-cost.”


He said state commodity groups in Heartland states like Missouri, Iowa and Illinois are focused on river issues and recognize their value.

“The river system is extremely important to move corn and beans out of their states,” Sifferath said.


From small farmers to large agribusinesses, Calhoun said this water access to world markets provides benefits. She also credits the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ dredging efforts to keep barges moving on the river as much as possible during the low-water challenges in recent years. She said this helped the U.S. supply exports to Europe during the disruption of supplies from Ukraine.


“Thanks to the Corps of Engineers and a very proactive dredging program, over the last two years all those products were delivered,” Calhoun said.


The Waterways Council advocates for investments in the river system, and Calhoun credits bipartisan efforts to address and fund river infrastructure projects in recent years. She said there are also investments that Congress needs to keep making.

“It’s critically important to continue to invest in the inland waterway system,” she said.


Stemler said the Corps monitors river conditions and the factors that can influence levels in the future. In addition, they perform dredging work to keep the river operating smoothly, going out early last year in anticipation of low water levels.

“(Dredging) plays a very important role,” she said. “They do maintenance dredging every year.”

Stemler said the Mississippi River is not always a hot topic of discussion nationally, but it remains vital for the country.