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.