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Prolonged Midwest drought threatens to cause massive economic damage

The Missouri, Mississippi and Ohio rivers are all at record lows, cutting barge traffic in half at the peak of harvest season. The dry conditions could also have long-term effects on agriculture.

ST. LOUIS (CN) — A prolonged drought over the Midwest and Mississippi River basin has intensified and caused record-low river levels that could result in billions of dollars in economic and other damages, according to an update from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency.

Some affected areas are entering their second or third year of drought, the agency said last week. It has been most severe across the Missouri River basin and Great Plains, resulting in very low water levels and greatly decreased barge traffic on the Missouri, Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

Brad Rippey, a U.S. Department of Agriculture meteorologist who works in the agency's Office of the Chief Economist, said river levels on the Mississippi are at record lows from south of St. Louis all the way to Greenville, Mississippi.

“This is the time of year when a lot of the grain, the corn and the oil seeds are being shipped out for export through the Port of New Orleans,” Rippey said in an interview. “If you look just specifically at grain crops from the United States, about 60% of those exit through New Orleans ultimately, and so it is a critical highway for not just crops going out, but also things coming back. It's a two-way river because you've got things like fuel and fertilizer coming north. So yes, this is a big impact.”

Estimates range that river traffic has decreased by 45-50%.

Rippey said that means crops pile up in silos or parking lots until water levels increase or they are shipped out by truck or rail, both of which are slower and less efficient.

“If you look at a simple barge, it can carry the equivalent of 70 truckloads of volume down the river,” he aid. “So a tow boat hauling 15 barges can carry close to a million bushels of grain. That exact number is about 900,000 bushels of grain. The time of year is a big deal because harvest is going on. Now if this happened earlier, like it did back in 2008 or 2012, or later in the year into next year, it wouldn't be quite as big a deal.”

That could translate to higher prices across the board for consumers already strapped by the recent spike in inflation.

“When everybody's dealing with high prices, this could add another layer of complexity to the whole situation,” Rippey said. “Because the prices for shipping the grain and oil seeds and other products up and down the river have gone up, that cuts the profit margin for producers and so ultimately, down the road in the supply chain, prices are going to go up.”

Doug Kluck, regional climate director for the NOAA's Central Region, said the drought impacts people in immediate ways, such as trouble planting grass seed or a low water supply in some areas that use well water.

Agriculture could also be affected long term.

“This is our recharge season,” Kluck said in an interview. “This is where plants stop growing. They stop extracting water out of the soil. So anytime that precipitation falls, we should be gaining soil moisture to get ready for next year. … If this drought is prolonged into the spring, the higher the risk there is for this disruption to continue and for repercussions to be even more serious next year.”

According to the report, 60% of the region is currently in moderate to exceptional drought conditions, with 30% in a severe drought or worse. Exceptional drought is affecting 30% of Kansas and 12% of Nebraska, as well as small portions of Colorado, Missouri and South Dakota.

The worsening drought is attributed to a wildfire in Cooper County, Missouri, last week that burned between 3,000 to 3,500 acres and heavily damaged 23 buildings in Wooldridge, a small town 20 miles west of Columbia with a population of less than 100.

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Exposed ground is seen in a dried-up riverbed where the normally wide Mississippi River would flow near Portageville, Mo., on Oct. 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

“We started out pretty wet in the spring, we saw some robust vegetative growth, the grasses were growing nicely and then the faucet turned off. And so with little to no precipitation falling, we were in current drought stress, those grasses start to get tender, they dry up, especially as we get into the fall season,” said Patrick Guinan, climatologist for University of Missouri Extension, in an interview.

"So we had this tender vegetation susceptible to fire and it only takes a spark and a strong wind to really fire out of control," Guinan added.

The town of Kimmswick, Missouri, opened a new $1.3 million port in July 2021 to allow cruise ships on the Mississippi River to dock and let passengers off to shop and tour the city. The historic river town, about 20 miles south of St. Louis, with a population of just 131, is dependent on river traffic and local river-themed festivals for its economy.

The American Queen Riverboat recently had to cancel docking at the new port due to the low river levels.

“We had 13 boats scheduled for this year and we’ve gotten four,” Kimmswick Mayor Phil Stang told KSDK-TV, St. Louis’ NBC affiliate. “It’s a shared problem up and down the river.”

The issues could expand into the winter months. Dry soil and cold temperatures lead to deeper frost depths, which could cause issues with buried infrastructure in the form of water main breaks and frozen water lines.

A variety of factors have caused the prolonged drought, including an extended La Niña pattern, which usually brings less participation than an El Niño cycle, over the past three years.

“It’s not unheard of, but it’s rare,” Kluck said.

Rippey believes climate change is a factor, as evidenced in extreme rainfall events like the one the dropped 8 inches of rain on St. Louis in a single day in July and caused major flooding. Changes in the jet stream are another factor.

“We have more blocking patterns and when patterns up and lock into place, then you also tend to get more extremes where you might get drought in one area, extreme rainfall in another area," Rippey said.

All the experts agree that it will require multiple rounds of significant precipitation to stimulate a recovery.

Missouri had one of those rounds on Oct. 25, with most of the southern half of the state reporting between 2-5 inches of rain. It still wasn’t enough.

“The reports coming in was it was a nice soaking rain,” Guinan said. “The soils were very thirsty and they soaked it all up. We saw a little relief in bringing those surface water supplies back to capacity, not even near though. Some of the creeks never really ran much even despite 2 to 3 inches of rain, so that is testimony to how dry those soils are.”

Guinan is optimistic about the near-term forecast, at least in Missouri, where another similar rain event could come next week.

Kluck said a variety of factors other than precipitation are at play.

“I know it sounds bad, but we don't necessarily want a warm winter,” Kluck said. “I know that people do want that, but from a recovery-from-drought point of view, you don't. You want it to be relatively cold or average and you want to [have] above normal precipitation.”

However, an extremely cold winter could complicate the river level recovery.

“If that happens, that could complicate issues heading into winter if we start locking up the upper basin water in the form of ice," Rippey said.

That scenario would delay recovery along the rivers until the ice melts. Rippey said similar scenarios occurred in 1977 and 2003.

“That's the worst-case scenario and we should begin to recover no later than early February,” he said. “Best-case scenario is we get a bunch of storms like we had this week to help start conditioning soils, potentially improving runoff.”

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