Low river levels return to main shipping channel for U.S. farmers

Market to Market | Clip
Sep 22, 2023 | 2 min

Much of the same region surveyed by Creighton University has been in a dry weather pattern this summer. The bill for reduced flows into the Mississippi River is coming due and again forcing changes in how goods are shipped up and downstream. 



A dry year in the Mississippi River basin has resulted in a dramatically reduced water flow along nearly the entire navigable portion of the river. 

Ricky Boyett, Chief of Public Affairs, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: "The challenge that we have here as well as everywhere else in the country is the answer is rain and we don't see rain in the in the Mississippi valley and so we're going to continue to face these challenges, we're going to have to continue to be proactive and work with our locals and our state, our governments but until we get rain we're going to be faced with these kind of situations."

The low river levels have created a repeat of 2022 with barges and  tows parked along the river bank. The slower flow pushed barge rates sharply higher in late August and those rates have now doubled. 

Last year’s trend of barges being loaded at lower weights has returned. Transport companies have announced restrictions on the volume of freight due to shallow draft conditions in the main channel. 

Mark Wright, Southern Region Vice President, American Waterways Operators: "When it slows down and you can't have as much throughput, you can't push as much through that river system then ultimately it's going to affect the initial producer, which is the farmer, right? "

Winter snow and spring rains helped recharge the watershed - albeit temporarily. However, a dry summer has greatly reduced the  overall flow. The Mississippi River at Memphis, Tennessee set a record low last year and the current reading is near that same mark. 

Low flow rates have also been observed on the Ohio, Illinois and Missouri Rivers. The current levels hit about a month earlier than they did in 2022

What started as an issue upstream, has led to challenges downstream. Here in New Orleans, where fresh and saltwater meet, a new issue has arisen. 

Ricky Boyett, Chief of Public Affairs, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: "Our challenge is we don't have enough force in the river and that allows salt water to move from the Gulf of Mexico upriver when unimpeded it could move as far as New Orleans and Baton Rouge."

Rain did fall in isolated areas of the Corn Belt this week, but only delayed the harvest a day or two. The level of severity in this week’s Drought Monitor increased by almost 4 points to 55.67, the highest level of severity since mid-June.

For Market to Market, I’m David Miller.

Contact: Paul.Yeager@iowapbs.org