‘America is going to shut down if we shut down’: The Mississippi River’s water levels are near record lows, and it’s wreaking havoc on one of the U.S.’s most critical supply chains

A towboat pushes barges up the Mississippi River in Granite City, Illinois
The Mississippi River’s water levels are at their lowest point in a decade.
Luke Sharrett—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Traffic jams and stuck barges are clogging up a critical artery of the U.S. economy, as a prolonged drought pushes the Mississippi River’s water levels to near-record lows.

Around 500 million tons of supplies are ferried along the Mississippi River every year with trade value worth $130 billion, according to the Port of New Orleans, mainly agricultural products, like corn and soybeans, along with fuel products. The Mississippi River Basin produces more than 90% of U.S. agricultural exports, according to the National Park Service, and nearly 80% of the world’s grain exports.

But all that is coming to a standstill amid historic drought conditions that are making the river untraversable for most shipping barges. River levels are now at their lowest level in a decade after historically low rainfall in recent months, becoming the latest supply-chain snag to hit the U.S.

“America is going to shut down if we shut down,” Mike Ellis, CEO of American Commercial Barge Line in Indiana, told the Wall Street Journal this week.

River traffic jams

The low water levels have clogged up entire sections of the Mississippi River in recent weeks, wreaking havoc on the local economy. 

At least 2,000 barges were backed up along the river last week, Bloomberg reported, citing data from the U.S. Coast Guard. Also last week, the Coast Guard warned that at least eight heavy barges had become “grounded” in particularly shallow parts of the river.

With fewer barges able to navigate the river and longer wait times, prices are starting to go up.

“It’s definitely having an impact on the local economy, because the commercial use of this river has almost completely stopped,” George Flaggs, mayor of Vicksburg, Miss., told local news channel WAPT earlier this week, adding that the river around Vicksburg is the lowest he’s seen it in nearly 70 years.

“This will actually affect us in a very negative way. We have to have less cargo on our barges and less tonnage moving. It affects our revenues,” Austin Golding, president of Golding Barge Line, told WAPT.

It’s the worst possible time for a drought in the Mississippi, as early fall is typically when grain is harvested in the Mississippi Basin and sent down the river. Soybeans are the most commonly shipped commodity on the river, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, but the low water levels are throwing the supply chain into chaos.

Full soybean trucks are being turned away from loading stations along the river entirely, Ted Kendall, a farmer near Vicksburg, told local channel WLOX this week

With water levels so low and the river’s flow weakened, salt water from the Gulf of Mexico could start creeping upstream, which would threaten local ecology and drinking supplies. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced plans at the end of September to construct a sill—an underwater obstacle—to halt the salt water’s flow upstream.

The Mississippi River tends to experience seasonally low water levels in the fall, the corps said, but with drought conditions persisting across the Mississippi’s headwater regions in the Midwest, it may be a while before water height returns to normal.

“Basically, we’re not seeing any heavy rainfall over the next several weeks to indicate that we would get any relief from low water conditions for the lower Mississippi,” Jeff Graschel, a National Weather Service hydrologist at the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center, told the New York Times last week.

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