Transportation and the Mississippi River

Growing Blue

Abnormally low levels affecting U.S.A.’s main shipping waterway

The Mississippi River, which drains more than 40 percent of the United States, is near record-low levels due to the U.S. drought and is now threatening to choke off vital transportation. The Mississippi River is the country’s most important waterway where under normal conditions about $7 billion worth of commodities is shipped on the river in December and January alone. Some 55 to 65 percent of U.S. corn, soybean, and wheat shipments exit the country via the Gulf, and within the country itself products such as, petroleum, fertilizer, sand, gravel, mulch, steel, are shipped up and down its major tributaries. However, the same drought that has devastated crops throughout the Midwest has made the mighty Mississippi dangerously narrow and shallow.

For barges to travel safely along the more than 2,000 miles of the Mississippi, a minimum 9 ft depth and 100 ft width must be maintained. As these limits are reached barge tugboats and towboats have been forced to change how they move goods up and down the river. This includes new schedules and one-way traffic hours being imposed and less-than-full loads being taken on by the companies to ensure that all traffic clears the river bottom. The $180 billion barge industry slowing down will have serious economic implications.

Along with the cost of delaying exports and loss of profits for companies transporting lighter loads, the country is facing a potential loss of up to 20,000 jobs and $130 million in lost wages. Some estimates predict closing the river to traffic could lead to losses of about $300 million a day with costs trickling down to consumers as products are moved to other modes of transportation.

The Army Corps of Engineers is currently working to ensure that the channel is navigable, and discussions are being held on whether to release more water from reservoirs along the upper rivers.

Read More:
Waterway’s Council
Cost of Increasing Droughts