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Drought growls Mississippi River Transit in hit to farmers from Minnesota to Louisiana | Chicago News

Water Woes Mississippi 22300817861951

James Isaacks walks where the normally wide Mississippi would flow, Oct. 20, 2022, near Portageville, Mo. (AP Photo / Jeff Roberson)

ALONG THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER (AP) — Adam Thomas begins harvesting soybeans on his Illinois farm as the morning dew clears. This year, dry weather sped up the work, allowing him to start early. His problem was getting the soybeans to market.

About 60% of the states of the Midwest and Northern Great Plains are in a state of drought. Almost the entire stretch of the Mississippi — from Minnesota to the mouth of the river in Louisiana — has experienced below-average rainfall over the past two months. As a result, water levels on the river have dropped to near-record lows, disrupting boat and barge traffic, which is vital for transporting recently harvested agricultural commodities such as soybeans and corn downriver for export.

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Though scientists say climate change is raising temperatures and making droughts more frequent and intense, one weather expert says this recent drought affecting the central United States is more of a short-term weather phenomenon.

The lack of rain has seriously hampered trade. The river moves more than half of all US grain exports, but the drought has reduced the flow of goods by about 45%, according to industry estimates cited by the federal government. The prices for rail transport, an alternative to shipping goods by barge, are also increasing.

“It basically just means less income,” said Mike Doherty, a senior economist at the Illinois Farm Bureau.

Thomas farms at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and does not have enough granaries to withstand the high cost of transportation.

“I had to take a discount,” he said.

Climate change is leading to wetter conditions in the upper Mississippi region in general, but in recent months, lower water levels have exposed parts that are normally inaccessible. Thousands of visitors walked a normally submerged riverbed to Tower Rock, a protruding formation about 100 miles (161 kilometers) southeast of St. Louis, last weekend. It’s the first time since 2012 that tourists can make the trek and stay dry. On the Tennessee-Missouri border, where the river is half a mile wide, off-road vehicles meander through long stretches of the exposed riverbed.

In a much needed dry break earlier this week, the region finally got some rain.

“It mitigates the pain of low water, but it won’t alleviate it completely,” said Kai Roth of the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center, adding that the river needs several rounds of “well, soggy” rain.”

Barges run the risk of hitting the bottom and getting stuck in the mud. Earlier this month, the US Coast Guard said there had been at least eight such “groundings.” Some barges touch the bottom but don’t get stuck. Others need salvage companies to help them. Barges are admonished to lighten their loads to prevent sinking too deep into the water, but this means they can carry fewer goods.

To ensure ships can travel safely, federal officials meet regularly, take into account river depths and consult with the shipping industry to establish local closures and traffic restrictions. When a route is temporarily closed, hundreds of barges can line up to wait.

“It’s very dynamic: Things are always changing,” said Eric Carrero, the Coast Guard’s director of western rivers and waterways. “Every day when we do our surveys, we find areas that are shallow and need to be dredged.”

After a disused section is dredged, officials mark a safe channel and barges can once again pass through.

According to Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, warehouses at shipping terminals are filling up in some places, preventing more goods from arriving. He said inflowing grain into a compromised river transportation system is like “attaching a garden hose to a fire hydrant.” High costs for farmers have prompted some to wait to ship their goods, he added.

Much of the river is still accessible to tourists. Cruise ships are built to withstand the extremes of the river: Big engines battle fast currents in the spring and shallow drafts keep boats moving in a drought, said Charles Robertson, president and CEO of American Cruise Lines, which operates five cruise ships sailing the 150 can carry up to 190 passengers each.

People walk toward Tower Rock to view the attraction, which is normally surrounded by the Mississippi River and is only accessible by boat, Oct. 19, 2022, in Perry County, Mo. Foot traffic to the rock formation was allowed due to near-record-breaking low water levels along of the river. (AP Photo / Jeff Roberson, file)

However, night operations are limited to help ships avoid new obstacles that the drought has uncovered. And some landing sites are inaccessible due to low tide — the river has dried up at the edges. In Vicksburg, Mississippi, a cruise ship couldn’t get to a ramp that normally loads passengers, so the city, with the help of townspeople, laid down gravel and plywood to create a makeshift walkway. For some, it adds to the adventure.

“You get the headlines that the rest of the country reads,” Robertson said.

Drought is an ongoing problem in California, which has just recorded its driest three-year stretch on record, a situation that has strained water supplies and increased the risk of wildfires. Climate change is increasing temperatures and making droughts more frequent and worse.

“The drier areas continue to get drier and the wetter areas continue to get wetter,” said Jen Brady, data analyst at Climate Central, a nonprofit group of scientists and researchers that reports on climate change.

But Brad Pugh, a weather forecaster with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the current drought in the Midwest is likely “driven by short-term weather patterns” and he wouldn’t link it to climate change.

In the Midwest, climate change is increasing the intensity of some rainstorms. The severity of flooding in the upper Mississippi is growing faster than any other area in the country, according to NOAA.

Some worry that fertilizer and manure have accumulated on farms and could be quickly washed away in heavy rains, reducing oxygen levels in rivers and streams and threatening aquatic life.

On rare occasions, communities are moving to alternative sources of drinking water away from the Mississippi River. The drought also threatens to dry up drinking water wells in Iowa and Nebraska, according to NOAA.

It is unclear how long the drought will last. There is a near-term possibility of rain, but NOAA notes that November is more likely to have below-average rainfall in central states like Missouri, which would prolong navigation problems on the river. Winter can bring more humidity in some northern states, including Michigan, but less rain is expected in the southern states.

“It takes a lot of rain to really get the river going,” Roth said.