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Climate change is jeopardizing trade along the Mississippi River

The Mississippi River's superhighway in Louisiana accounts for thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in trade through the shipping industry. But as climate change causes water levels to rise, activists and experts are looking for ways to tackle the problems for the people who depend on the mighty river. Nexus Media’s Josh Landis reports as part of our climate change series, “Peril & Promise."

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    One of the southernmost ports on the Mississippi River is in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Nexus Media and NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Josh Landis recently returned from there with this report about how those who navigate the river are dealing with rising waters.

  • Josh Landis:

    When a drop of water from Minnesota or a speck of sand from Ohio finally reach Baton Rouge, they've joined the vast snowmelt and run-off from 31 states and two Canadian provinces. The basin is more than a million square miles, stretching from Montana to New York State. During an average spring, more than 7 million gallons of water and about 20 tons of sediment pass under this bridge every second, focusing the continental force of the Mississippi and billions of dollars of US trade into a tightening bottleneck. In Baton Rouge, the river starts its final dash to the ocean, through a 233-mile, man-made channel that snakes its way into the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, the ports of Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and South Louisiana form the greatest trading hub in the western hemisphere. Steven Hathorn is President of the New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association.

  •  Steven Hathorn:

    I believe the economic effect is around $730 billion per year. One out of every six jobs in Louisiana is from the Mississippi River. I like to say it's one of our greatest, probably our greatest natural resource.

  • Josh Landis:

    Hathorn has navigated large ships up and down the channel for decades.

  • Steven Hathorn:

    Our area is one of the most treacherous pilotage areas in the world. Very congested, with, tens of thousands of barges, hundreds of tow boats. We have, I think seven bridges in between New Orleans and Baton Rouge to navigate through. It can be very trying on a person.

  • Josh Landis:

    Even in normal conditions, navigating the Mississippi is so challenging that a specially trained local pilot must steer every international freighter safely to port. But the unpredictable high water season is making that job tougher. 2019's flooding was record-setting for both its duration and volume.

  • Steven Hathorn:

    We've had twisted anchors, broken anchors, broken chains, 10, 15 years ago. You didn't see that.

  • Josh Landis:

    Capt. Jared Ruiz of the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office deals with the aftermath of broken chains and twisted anchors.

  • Capt. Jared Ruiz:

    We'll come out here and make sure during a high water event that these tugs are secured and they don't look like you know they're going to come off and hit the levy because if they do, that's, that's what happened during Katrina.

  • Josh Landis:

    Heeding the lessons from that hurricane, Capt. Ruiz now keeps a close eye on parked barges. And on the city's landmark East Bank.

  • Capt. Jared Ruiz:

    I use the sign to gauge how high the water is. Uh, well, you know, it'll be, I'll say, well, it's covering half of Baton Rouge, or it's covering all of Baton Rouge.

  • Josh Landis:

    Earlier this year, did it cover it?

  • Capt. Jared Ruiz:

    It covered it. It was totally covered this year.

  • Josh Landis:

    The challenges of high water levels on the Mississippi are many.

  • Capt. Jared Ruiz:

    Right here is where these tugs have hit the, this pilon of the bridge structure and, you'll see like the little scrape marks and gouges, you have some tugs that have such, you know, like I said, three football fields long.

  • Josh Landis:

    So as wide as this is, it's kind of a tight squeeze when the river's going.

  • Capt. Jared Ruiz:

    Yes.

  • Josh Landis:

    And high water here can join forces with powerful storms in the Gulf. This spring, Hurricane Barry left cities like New Orleans on the brink of disaster.

  • Steven Hathorn:

    Hurricane season, highwater season when you have those overlap each other, you have trouble. And there was a great fear here that when the hurricane came, it would cause the river to back up and come up, and it was already so high that it would flood New Orleans.

  • Josh Landis:

    17 feet of high river water left the city with only 3ft of remaining levee protection. That's a safeguard the height of a garden fence against the storm surge of a hurricane.

  • Steven Hathorn:

    We were lucky, I think it came up six inches or less than a foot. And so we were good. But Katrina, I believe it rose like ten feet.

  • Josh Landis:

    Torrential rains and widespread flooding ambushed Baton Rouge in 2016. Submerging almost seventy-five percent of homes in Livingston Parish. The catastrophic damage reshaped the way many citizens thought about the threat of floodwaters, including Mayor of the city, Sharon Weston Broome, who is also President of East Baton Rouge Parish.

  • Mayor Sharon Weston Broome:

    If it never happens to you, you often think, "oh, I'll be ok, I don't need to do anything."

  • Capt. Jared Ruiz:

    You would go in one area one day and it would be no water. And then within, you know, hours, it would be up on rooftops. And you'd have river current going through it.

    I've never seen anything like that.

  • Mayor Sharon Weston Broome:

    I thought for sure, "Oh, it's going to go down." It'll go down."

  • Josh Landis:

    Then orders came to evacuate.

  • Mayor Sharon Weston Broome:

    Leaving that Saturday, I thought, I'll be back Sunday. I didn't get back into my house until a year and a half after that. That impact was very profound. What we now understand. We have to think about water in everything that we do, everything that we develop, everything that we build. Water has to be in the fabric of our planning. And so that's what we're doing.

  • Josh Landis:

    In a deep-red state where talk of climate change can still polarize, Broome does addresses the issue head on.

  • Mayor Sharon Weston Broome:

    I have learned not to debate climate change with people. I have just pointed the facts to them. Water is warmer in the Gulf. That is having, scientists are telling us, that it is having an effect on a lot of the showers and downpours that we're experiencing. I'm not gonna debate it. I'm just going to address it.

  • Josh Landis:

    According to NASA, Earth's average surface temperature has increased more than one and a half degrees Fahrenheit, mainly as a result of burning fossil fuels. Warmer air holds more moisture, leading to more extreme rain and snow. Warmer waters provide more fuel for hurricanes, which scientists say are getting more powerful. All of this adds up to regions like the Mississippi Delta being trapped by fuller rivers and rising seas. Steven Hathorn who knows this part of the river better than almost anyone, has noticed the change.

  • Steven Hathorn:

    I think it's probably a lot of little things adding up to get us where we're at. The river is diked, dammed, that's increased the current in it. You also have a lot of development along the river, which probably pushes the water back into it. I'm not going to discount climate change either. There's no doubt that some that could have something to do with it too. We're under the gun on that. What happens if this becomes the new norm? You know, I mean everybody, I think is saying a little prayer that it won't.

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