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Drought is disrupting Mississippi River supply chain

Parts of the Mississippi watershed have seen record-low water levels this year. What comes next for the biggest waterway in the U.S. is anyone’s guess.

(CN) — The United States is going dry, and it’s affecting the biggest waterway in the country.

With much of the country in moderate to extreme drought, the impacts aren’t limited to water-scarce regions like the Colorado River in the American Southwest.

Instead, the Mississippi River — one of the biggest river systems in the world, and a major transportation system for much of the U.S. — is also seeing record-low water levels in places. The conditions have limited the ability of Mississippi barges to transport goods in the country, panicking market watchers and leading to surging prices for boat space. In the months ahead, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says it could have to close sections of the Mississippi for up to 72 hours in order to dredge and make sure the river stays navigable.

These concerning trends were the subject of a webinar Friday that brought together climate experts, water officials and business leaders to discuss how we got here and what comes next.

The how-we-got-here part is pretty simple: Regions that feed the Mississippi just aren't getting enough rain.

Areas currently under drought conditions include the Upper Missouri River Basin and the Upper Mississippi River Basin, which together stretch from around Montana to Wisconsin.

These regions are "pretty much the lifeline for streamflows" in the Mississippi, receiving a significant amount of their water through rain in late spring and early summer, said Victor Murphy with the National Weather Service. This year, it simply didn't rain as much.

Farther east, the Ohio River Basin is doing better, with conditions ranging from moderate drought to no drought. Still, the Ohio River has never contributed much water to the Mississippi to begin with.

Hurricane Nicole, which touched Florida last week, is helping boost rainfall in parts of the Ohio River Basin. But those benefits are short-term and limited, and they're happening as the Mississippi River heads into its typical dry season.

The water problems on the Mississippi are in some ways fundamentally different to those in the western United States. In the dry West, overoptimistic projections, coupled with rapid development, are putting a strain on already limited resources.

On the Mississippi, residents are more used to dealing with floods — but they're now experiencing some of the same drought conditions that have rattled other parts of country. That's led to conditions like those at Tower Rock in Southern Missouri, where visitors this year were able to walk to a landmark that is typically only accessible by boat.

In parts of the Mississippi watershed like Louisville, Kentucky, water levels have hit their lowest mark since record-keeping began in the late 19th century. Like fires in the West and extreme rain in the South, conditions on the Mississippi may be yet another example of how climate change is disrupting American life.

The impacts are perhaps being felt hardest in the barge industry — a major way that corn and soy grown in the Midwest makes it to New Orleans, then to markets abroad.

Low water levels this year reduced Mississippi barge capacity by around 30%, said Paul Rohde, a regional vice president with the Waterways Council, a nonprofit trade group. Towboats could also pull fewer barges, he said.

Those factors contributed to surging barge costs around harvest season in September and October. The average cost of transporting a metric ton of goods on barges soared from around $20 to more than $100.

"We are seeing some recovery," but the sudden cost spikes rattled the market, said Brad Rippey, a meteorologist at the USDA's Office of the Chief Economist. Farmers can hold their goods a couple months for lower prices, but the Mississippi River is a "two-way street." In addition to exporting goods, farmers also need the Mississippi to import supplies like fertilizer.

Thankfully, barge costs have since mostly fallen back to normal. If farmers chose other transport options en masse, it could have even worse effects on the climate.

While transportation costs account for around 27% of U.S. emissions, barges account for only 2%, said Rohde, the business expert.

"Barges are greening the supply chain," he said. "They're the most environmentally friendly mode of moving commodities." They also have less impact on regular Americans: "You don't hear about tugboats in the morning traffic report."

As for what comes next, that's less clear. Mississippi watersheds typically recharge in the winter. Farmers don't need to irrigate their fields. There's also less wild vegetation to drink up rain and snow.

The National Weather Service is predicting a drier-than-average winter in the southern U.S. and a wetter one up north. Still, in places like the Ohio River Basin, "these probabilities are quite low," said Jon Gottschalck, a forecaster with the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center. In other words, relying on wetter winter weather is a gamble.

In the meantime, "the river is open," said Eric Carrero, a U.S. Coast Guard official. "We are moving traffic." Improving conditions have allowed the Coast Guard to "ease certain navigation restrictions," Carrero said, and officials are "fully committed to safeguarding the marine transportation system."

Still, depending on winter conditions, officials might need to once again increase restrictions on the river, including closing sections for up to 72 hours to dredge, said Andy Pannier, a colonel with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

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