A record-breaking drought throughout the Mississippi River basin is finally beginning to ease, federal officials said last month.

Low water levels impacted barge traffic and grain exports this fall by slowing shipments from the Midwest to the Port of New Orleans. Saltwater began to move north from the Gulf of Mexico, threatening drinking supplies south of that city.

Now, water levels are beginning to rise in the Lower Mississippi River, which extends downstream from Cairo, Ill., to the Gulf of Mexico in southeastern Louisiana.

Months of dry conditions throughout the Mississippi River basin, which drains more than 40 percent of the contiguous United States’ land mass, have led to record lows in the river’s water levels despite bouts of concentrated heavy rainfall in July that caused flooding in St. Louis and Eastern Kentucky.

In a briefing, officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture said they are continually dredging sediment to deepen the river channel, restricting barge loads and imposing limits on tow boats to prevent groundings. The Coast Guard is monitoring depths and continually installing safety markers for ships.

The Army Corps is dredging the middle stretch of the Mississippi River, which extends from St. Louis, Mo. to Cairo, Ill., to maintain workable riverbed depths, Col. Andy Pannier of the Mississippi Valley Division said.

“We remain confident at this time that our dredging operations will keep the river open,” Pannier said, adding that recent rains have alleviated drought conditions in some of the south, and the Lower Mississippi River likely won’t require the same level of attention.

Paul Rohde, vice president of the industry advocacy group Waterways Council, Inc.’s Midwest region, said when the drought was at its worst in October, more than 3,000 barges were blocked up. He said the slowdown has cost billions of dollars. Now, he said, with restrictions in place and constant channel dredging, the industry remains in a “stabilized crisis.”

June to October was the 11th-driest such five-month stretch in 128 years for the Upper Missouri and Upper Mississippi basins, said Victor Murphy, program manager at the National Weather Service.

Then in September, the Ohio River Basin, which dumps 60 percent of the water flow into the Lower Mississippi River, experienced an extreme “flash” drought, worsening an already dire situation. It was “the final nail in the coffin for the dryness,” Murphy said.

Most summers, tropical storms and hurricanes bring precipitation to the Gulf Coast and heartland, but not this year. The lack of rain from storms, combined with the impacts of La Niña, made for an unusually dry fall.

Pannier called the lack of storms “truly a blessing to those in Louisiana that have suffered over the last couple of years.” But, he added, “it ends up being a curse because we don’t get the rain across the Ohio Valley.”

Officials said above-normal precipitation forecast for parts of the watershed this winter could help continue to improve conditions.

Scientists say climate change will continue to bring weather extremes — be it increased rainfall or extreme droughts. This fall’s drought could be a harbinger of challenges ahead for the Mississippi River shipping industry.

This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with Report For America and the Society of Environmental Journalists, funded by the Walton Family Foundation.

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