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Drought ends along Mississippi River, for now

March 4, 2024   Farm Policy News

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WorkBoat’s Pamela Glass reported last week that “the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has officially declared an end to the severe drought that disrupted barge transportation along the Mississippi River system for more than a year.”


“Draft restrictions on vessels have been lifted, and dredges no longer operate to maintain nine-foot navigation throughout the Mississippi River,” Glass wrote. “About 589 million tons of cargo transit through more than 4,000 miles of the river’s navigable channels, according to the Corps.”


The Soy Transportation Coalition’s Mike Steenhoek told RFD-TV’s Amber Weaver this past Friday that “the better conditions are due to recent snow and rainfall experienced in the overall watershed.”


“‘Good to see water levels back to some degree of normalcy, the concern we have going forward is that so much of the farm ground is very dehydrated,’ Steenhoek said. ‘And so, what that means is it won’t take a very prolonged period of dry conditions to all of a sudden return us back to low water conditions,'” Weaver wrote. Steenhoek told Glass that “river gauge readings are (still) considerably lower compared to years such as 2018, 2019 and 2020.”


Persistent Drought

Drought affecting the Mississippi River has been particularly persistent over the past two years, with CNN’s Ritu Prasad, Eric Zerkel and Derek Can Dam reporting in October 2023 that “the water level at Memphis fell to a record-low elevation of minus 11.5 feet on Wednesday afternoon, according to data from the National Weather Service.”


The low water levels forced shipping companies to “cut back on the amount of cargo they load on each barge,” the Daily Memphian’s Keely Brewer reported in October 2023. “Lighter barges are less likely to have trouble on their journey down a low river. In some places, shippers are being forced to put 15% less cargo on each vessel.”


Because 60% of all U.S. grain exports are shipped on the Mississippi River, shipping rates at the time “doubled for barges leaving from Memphis and St. Louis compared to the three-year average,” Brewer reported. “Farmers can opt to transport their crops using trucks or trains. In some cases, it may be cheaper than current barge rates for some farmers, but it’s still more expensive than a typical harvest season.”


Drought Recovery Remains Fragile

While water levels have improved, “drought recovery depends greatly on the amount of rain that falls this spring and where along the river system the precipitation occurs,” Glass reported. “The Climate Prediction Center, part of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, predicts that from March through May above-average rainfall produced by the El Niño weather pattern will help ease the drought in portions of the Lower and Middle Mississippi River and throughout the Ohio River Basins.”


“It will be a different story in the Upper Mississippi basin which is likely to remain in drought as dry conditions are expected to persist and possibly spread there, CPC said,” according to Glass. “Another factor affecting water levels is a lack of snow pack in much of the Midwest, which can send water from melted snow into river systems. This has led to several predictions of lower-than-normal chances of spring floods this year, which is the next seasonal event that the barge industry watches closely.”