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Mississippi River Faces Shipping Freeze As Water Levels Drop

Navigation has become treacherous as the worst US drought in half a century brings water levels close to record lows.

| Fri Dec. 14, 2012 10:03 AM EST

This story first appeared on the Guardian website as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The Mississippi as seen from Ed Drager's tug boat is a river in retreat: a giant beached barge is stranded where the water dropped, with sand bars springing into view. The floating barge office where the tug boat captain reports for duty is tilted like a funhouse. One side now rests on the exposed shore. "I've never seen the river this low," Drager said. "It's weird."

The worst drought in half a century has brought water levels in the Mississippi close to historic lows and could shut down all shipping in a matter of weeks—unless Barack Obama takes extraordinary measures.

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It's the second extreme event on the river in 18 months, after flooding in the spring of 2011 forced thousands to flee their homes.

Without rain, water levels on the Mississippi are projected to reach historic lows this month, the national weather service said in its latest four-week forecast.

"All the ingredients for us getting to an all-time record low are certainly in place," said Mark Fuchs, a hydrologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in St. Louis. "I would be very surprised if we didn't set a record this winter."

The drought has already created a low-water choke point south of St. Louis, near the town of Thebes, where pinnacles of rock extend upwards from the river bottom making passage treacherous.


Tim McDonnell/Climate Desk

Shipping companies are hauling 15 barges at a time instead of a typical string of 25, because the bigger runs are too big for current operating conditions.

Barges are being sent off with lighter loads, making for more traffic, with more delays and backups. Stretches of the river are now reduced to one-way traffic. A long cold spell could make navigation even trickier: shallow, slow-moving water is more likely to get clogged up with ice.

Current projections suggest water levels could drop too low to send barges through Thebes before the new year—unless there is heavy rainfall.

Local television in St. Louis is already dispensing doom-laden warnings about rusting metal and hazardous materials exposed by the receding waters.

Shipping companies say the economic consequences of a shutdown on the Mississippi would be devastating. About $7 billion in vital commodities typically moves on the river at this time of year—including grain, coal, heating oil, and cement.

Cutting off the transport route would be a disaster that would resonate across the Midwest and beyond.

"There are so many issues at stake here," said George Foster, owner of JB Marine Services. "There is so much that moves on the river, not just coal and grain products, but you've got cement, steel for construction, chemicals for manufacturing plants, petroleum plants, heating oil. All those things move on the waterways, so if it shuts down you've got a huge stop of commerce."

Local companies which depend on the river to ship their goods are already talking about layoffs, if the Mississippi closes to navigation. Those were just the first casualties, Foster said. "It is going to affect the people at the grocery store, at the gas pump, with home construction, and so forth."

And it's going to fall especially hard on farmers, who took a heavy hit during the drought and who rely on the Mississippi to ship their grain to export markets.

Farmers in the area typically lost up to three-quarters of their corn and soy bean crops to this year's drought. Old-timers say it was the worst year they can remember.

"We have been through some dry times. In 1954, when my dad and grandfather farmed here, they pretty much had nothing because it was so dry," said Paul McCormick who farms with his son, Jack, in Ellis Grove, Illinois, south of St. Louis. "But I think this was a topper for me this year."

Now, however, farmers are facing the prospect of not being able to sell their grain at all because they can't get it to market. The farmers may also struggle to find other bulk items, such as fertilizer, that are typically shipped by barge.

"Most of the grain produced on our farm ends up bound for export," said Jack McCormick, who raises beef cattle and grain with his father. "It ends up going down the river. That is a very good market for us, and if you can't move it that means a  lower price, or you have to figure out a different way to move it. It all ends up as a lower price for the farmers."

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