Drought’s impact on Mississippi River causes disruptions in shipping and agriculture

Up and down the Mississippi River basin, below-average rainfall has constricted one of the country’s major economic thoroughfares. Some areas along the river are reporting their lowest water levels in decades and it could affect consumers across the country. William Brangham reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    While a historic drought in the American West gets most of our attention, the middle of the country is suffering as well.

    Up and down the Mississippi River Basin, below-average rainfall has constricted one of the country's major economic thoroughfares, which could affect consumers across the country.

    As William Brangham reports, some areas along the river are reporting their lowest water levels in decades.

  • William Brangham:

    This dried, sandy expanse isn't a desert. It's the riverbed of the Mississippi laying bare in the sun as the mighty river's waters have dried up. It's the same in multiple states.

    In Tennessee, boats that were once floating in water are now locked in mud. In Louisiana, the receding waters revealed a century-old sunken ship. Tower Rock in Missouri, normally an island in the middle of the flowing river, is now accessible by foot for the first time in over a decade.

    The Mississippi is normally one of the busiest cargo waterways in America, moving roughly 500 million tons of goods every year. More than half of all U.S. grain exports are moved on this water superhighway. But this drought, which constricts the depth and width of the river, has caused traffic jams. By some estimates, the flow of goods has been cut by 45 percent, all of which could cost the economy $20 billion in damages and losses.

    Lou Dell'orco, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Every time you lose a foot of draft on a barge, that's the equivalent of about 6,000 bushels of soybeans.

  • William Brangham:

    Lou Dell'Orco is the chief of operations for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' St. Louis District. He oversees dredging operations there, removing sediment from the riverbed to widen or deepen its channel.

    He says, with this lack of rainfall, it's a constant struggle to know where to dredge next.

  • Lou Dell’orco:

    Based on the forecast, you're looking for the next problem area that you have to hit before one of them turns into a channel closure. So you get that off the forecast. And it's really an analysis of when it's going to become an issue and how do you get there before it becomes an issue.

  • William Brangham:

    And, as the river's freshwater shrinks, saltwater from the Gulf pushes further upstream, threatening the drinking supply used by residents south of New Orleans.

    Mayors of towns up and down the Mississippi are asking for federal assistance, as conditions are expected to worsen through the winter.

    I recently spoke with one of those mayors, Jim Strickland, mayor of Memphis, Tennessee

    Mayor Strickland, thank you so much for being here with us today.

    I know you have lived most of your life in Memphis. Can you just give me a sense, have you ever seen the river quite this low before?

    Jim Strickland, Mayor of Memphis, Tennessee: No.

    I have worked downtown for 35 years, and usually with some kind of view of the Mississippi River. I have never seen it with the soil and the sand and the dirt so prevalent. So often, we see flooding situations. This is the exact opposite. I have just never seen it this low, not only visually, but I hear so many complaints about it from the folks who operate our ports.

  • William Brangham:

    People get it if there's a flood, but when the river is low, what does that mean for your city and for your constituents?

  • Jim Strickland:

    It narrows the depth of the barges that ship goods.

    Normally, it's about 14 feet deep. Now they have to narrow it to about seven feet, sometimes 10. But that's basically half the amount of area to ship goods, which doubles the shipping cost, because they have to have two barges instead of one or find some other way to ship their goods.

    And barge traffic along the Mississippi is a huge business. And most of the food distribution in the United States comes down the river at some point, so it increases the cost to the shipping companies, which ends up increasing the cost to you and me at the grocery store.

  • William Brangham:

    And does that have a more practical impact on your city itself, being that you literally are on the river?

  • Jim Strickland:

    Not necessarily the city government, but for our employers.

    We are so — our docks employ a lot of people, and there's just less for them to do. So I'm not sure they have laid off anyone, but, certainly, their profits have decreased in especially what they call bulk transportation, which is hard — steel, grains.

    They're much harder to ship now than liquids. Liquids are going OK, but the hard items are almost out of business.

  • William Brangham:

    You mentioned before that you and all city — cities along the river have gotten accustomed to floods. That's what we know of historically, but that having a drought is a much different thing, and you don't really have the tools to deal with that.

    Explain that a little bit more about, what kinds of things, what kinds of tools do you think you need to try to live in a drought-stricken river?

  • Jim Strickland:

    Well, first, droughts happen less frequently than floods, or at least in my adult lifetime. So we don't have as much experience with them.

    But the federal resources really are plentiful when there's flooding. They will compensate homeowners, businesses, governments for the expenses, that we lose. Drought, there's really no compensation at all on the federal level. So, these businesses are really taking it on the chin.

    We really need a policy, a national policy governing droughts. And, frankly, because it's happened so infrequently, I'm sure it hasn't made the radar of most officials. But it sure seems like it's happening more and more frequently. And, with global warming, I think we need to be prepared.

    The Mississippi River is so important, not only to commerce, but for recreation. And the northern part of the Mississippi gets their drinking water from it. So it's an important asset that really needs more federal attention.

  • William Brangham:

    As we know, a warming world is going to make these unpredictable events even more unpredictable. And it could be droughts one year. It could be floods another year or some mixture of the two.

    As a mayor who's got a plan for not just this week, but for months, years down the road, how do you plan for that?

  • Jim Strickland:

    Frankly, we don't have the resources. Even if you plan for it, what are you going to do about it?

    It's — we really need that federal intervention, because there's 10 states along the Mississippi River, 102 cities with 102 mayors involved in our organization. We need a regional national policy on the Mississippi River, with all the resources of the federal government, because it's a lifeblood, not only to Middle America, but to the whole country.

    So, we're just trying to raise the profile to get that attention. And I think — I think what's happened here recently has gotten a lot more attention. And, unfortunately, the forecasters are not — it's not promising over the winter, that there's not going to be enough snow or rain to really raise the level significantly of the river.

    We're just hoping for a rainy spring.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Mayor Jim Strickland of Memphis, Tennessee, thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate it.

  • Jim Strickland:

    Thank you.

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