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Low levels on the Mississippi River could persist through the winter

A barge is transported through a lock on Wednesday, July 26, 2023 at the Melvin Price Lock And Dam on the Mississippi River.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
A barge is transported through a lock in July at the Melvin Price Lock and Dam on the Mississippi River. Low levels on the river this fall mean barges cannot transport as much product as they normally can.

Updated at 11:10 a.m. Oct. 16 with comments from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Low water levels for a second straight year on the Mississippi River are causing problems at a critical time for those who rely on the river.

Fall is typically a busy time as farmers harvest their crops and look to ship those products down the river to eventually be exported, said Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition.

“It’s game time in agriculture, and we need our supply chain to be firing on all cylinders, and unfortunately that’s not occurring right now,” he said.

The low levels are restricting the efficiency of barges by limiting how many barges can use the river and how much product they can ship, Steenhoek said.

“When you have less water in the river, you can’t load as much freight, in our case soybeans, per barge as you normally would,” he said.

The persistent drought across the Midwest this summer has left the ground in many places thirsty for any water, limiting what may reach creeks or streams and eventually the Mississippi, said Mike Welvaert, a hydrologist at the North Central River Forecast Center.

“We’ve only been seeing a very minimal amount of that reaching the river,” he said. “We’re so far behind normal that we just can’t catch up.”

Welvaert explained rain that fell in parts of Minnesota in late September helped replenish soil moisture, lakes and other smaller bodies of water.

The lower river levels are also coming earlier this year compared to last, which set record lows in some places, said Illinois State Climatologist Trent Ford.

“That doesn’t bode well for this year given that without additional wetter weather across the region, those river levels are forecast to continue to drop,” he said.

Ford added that fall is usually not a wet time of year for the center of the country.

“Even if we keep up with climatology, which is not what we’re doing right now, it’s hard to improve these big river conditions,” he said. “And it's certainly hard to do it quickly.”

Now, Ford is focused on the winter months, which can be a time when the Mississippi River can experience some recharge.

“Last year, when we got very little snow and it was mild, that’s not what we need,” he said. “What we really need is a cold, wet and snowy winter to help recharge this river.”

Welvaert is also eyeing the winter months, but for a different reason.

“In winter when things start freezing the flow really shuts off from up north,” he said. “We call that an ice bite, and that happens pretty much every December.”

This could mean the low levels on the river could persist through winter until the spring thaw, Welvaert said. It could be avoided if the region gets more precipitation, he added, though seasonal precipitation forecasts don’t predict above-average rainfall for the Midwest at this point.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is also monitoring when the flow from the Missouri River drops off in late November after the navigation season ends, said Andy Schimpf, Operations Manager for the Corps St. Louis District Mississippi River Project.

“We usually expect between two and three feet of difference,” he said. “It doesn't drop three feet overnight, it’s over the course of about two weeks.”

This drop, combined with existing low levels on the Mississippi, will likely make barge shipping more challenging over the winter, Schimpf said.

“It’s going to be low this year and it’s going to be a pretty serious effect on the industry,” he said. “They know that and they’re preparing for that.”

It’s because barges won’t be able to carry as much product as they could when river levels are higher, he explained. The corps must maintain a shipping channel that’s at least nine feet deep, but many modern barges can sit lower than that when fully loaded, Schimpf said.

“When you’re going from nine to 13 feet, that’s more cargo,” he said. “You’re shipping it in the same footprint, for the same amount of fuel in the same amount of time.”

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.