Chaos on Mississippi River as water level continues to drop

The Mississippi River is suffering its lowest water levels for a decade causing chaos as barges ground (eight last week), there are days of queuing for barges to proceed, a cruise ship cancels its cruises, and a shipwreck is re-revealed.

“We’re all just sitting here with about a hundred other boats,” bored tugboat tankerman told WLBT. “We’ve been here all week.”

Image courtesy of Thomas Berner, AP

The tanker man was at Vicksburg. This is one of the hot spots, along with Memphis, where the US Coastguard reported 2,253 barges queuing to get through (7 October 2022). One hundred and forty four other vessels were also waiting.

The dire situation – expected to have a huge impact on grains, oilseeds, fertilisers, coal, metals, and industrial materials which are transported by river – comes after nearly a month without rain, with the Mississippi River now extremely low and no sign of rain on the way. Water levels are expected to drop further. The video below demonstrates how low the level is.

“The Coast Guard, [Army Corps of Engineers] and river industry partners are working towards the goal of opening the waterway to restricted one-way traffic when it has been determined safe to do so,” says a Coast Guard’s statement. The Army Corps has been dredging portions of the river over the past week.

But CNN reports that even when barges start moving once again, they’ll be forced to carry as much as 20 per cent less cargo than normal in order to not ride too deep in the water. And rather than a single vessel moving between 30 to 40 barges at one time as they normally do, they’ve been forced to move no more than 25 barges on each trip due to the more narrow channels.

The combination of fewer barges per trip, and less cargo per barge, has cut the capacity of barges moving on the river by about 50 per cent even before the recent river closures, Mike Seyfert, CEO of the National Grain and Feed Association told CNN. The effect is to send prices skyrocketing.

River barges are still a major method of moving cargo within the United States, especially for agricultural products.

Image courtesy of Army Corps of Engineers

About five per cent of all freight in the United States moves on river barges when measured by the weight of the cargo and the distance traveled, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The shippers who use river barges have few, if any, affordable alternatives.

Cruise ship stricken by low water on Mississippi River

Low water levels also prevented a Viking river cruise ship from completing its journey up the Mississippi River. The Viking Mississippi was not able to finish its current voyage or make it to St. Paul (Minnesota) in time for her upcoming departure on October 15. Although the cruise operator did not say how many passengers were impacted, they did say that guests have been made aware of the problem.

The Viking ship has encountered low-water issues on this trip more than once.

One passenger told aazkanews: “It’s like nothing ever happened. We were unable to go on our planned excursions, so we simply sat on the ship and continued to receive our meals.”

Shipwreck exposed on Mississippi River

Residents of Baton Rouge have been able to see the remains of an 18th-century ship Brookhill which has been exposed in the Mississippi’s bed.

“We believe this is a ship that was manufactured in 1896 in Indiana for trade here,” Chip McGimsey, the state’s archaeologist and director of the archaeology division, told wbrz.

Seemingly it sank in September 1915 during a storm as floating logs caused fatal damage. Now 90 per cent of the hull is visible again.

“In 1992, it was exposed, an archeological firm did some work. At that time, it was not nearly as exposed as it is now,” McGimsey says.

The plan is to use this moment to build on the basic renderings of what the researchers in 1992 believed the ship’s build looked like.

“For the most part, there are not good documents on boat building, especially when you get back into the area of wooden boats. They have a lot of individuality in these boats, and there are so few of them remaining. This is a rare example of one from around 1900.”

More than 70 per cent of the Missouri River basin is facing drought conditions, meaning less water is entering the Mississippi River, further lowering its levels. A University of Missouri weather station in Columbia reported just 6.46 inches of rain between 2 June and 27 September, the Drought Monitor noted. That is more than 11 inches below normal and the driest such period for that location in 23 years.

Further upriver, the US Coast Guard Sector Upper Mississippi River was involved in an active shooter drill on a simulated passenger vessel last week. It says the mass rescue operation drill, spearheaded by the local and area partners, was successful and ‘hats off’ to all those involved in the full scale security exercise.

Earlier this year, severe drought across Europe saw water levels in rivers and lakes drop to some of the lowest levels on record, and dozens of German warships, which were sunk during World War II, resurfaced in the Danube near Serbia’s port town of Prahovo. This came as leisure sailing was no longer possible on many Belgian Flanders waterways, including places such as Ghent, due to the ongoing drought.

Lake Mead has been suffering too. Declining water levels due to climate change and 20 years of ongoing drought are reshaping the shoreline of the biggest reservoir in the USA, and with it the boating habits of local residents.

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