Drought rumbles across Mississippi River transit in blow to farmers – NBC Chicago

Adam Thomas begins harvesting soybeans on his Illinois farm when the dew is burning in the morning. This year, the dry weather accelerated the work, allowing it to start early. His problem was getting the soybeans to market.

About 60% of the states in the Midwest and northern Great Plain are experiencing drought. Almost the entire stretch of the Mississippi River — from Minnesota to the mouth of the river in Louisiana — has seen below-average rainfall for the past two months. As a result, water levels on the river have dropped to near record lows, disrupting ship and barge traffic that is essential for transporting recently harvested agricultural products such as soybeans and corn downstream for the export.

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

The lack of rain seriously affected the trade. The river carries 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 of rail transport, an alternative to transporting goods by barge, are also on the rise.

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

Thomas farms at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and does not have enough grain storage to withstand the high transportation costs.

“I had to accept a price reduction,” he said.

Climate change generally brings wetter conditions to the upper Mississippi region, but in recent months, falling water levels have exposed parts that are usually inaccessible. Last weekend, thousands of visitors crossed a mostly submerged riverbed to Tower Rock, a jutting formation about 100 miles (161 kilometers) southeast of St. Louis. This is the first time since 2012 that tourists could make the trek and stay dry. At the Tennessee-Missouri border, where the river is half a mile wide, four-wheeled tracks wind through wide expanses of exposed riverbed.

In a much needed break from the dry weather earlier in the week, the region finally received some rain.

“It sort of relieves the pain of low water, but it’s not going to completely alleviate it,” said Kai Roth of the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center, adding that the river needs several turns of “good soaking.” rain.”

Godwits risk hitting the bottom and getting stuck in the mud. Earlier this month the US Coast Guard said there had been at least eight “groundings”. Some barges touch the bottom but do not get stuck there. Others need salvage companies to help them. Barges are advised to lighten their load to prevent them from going too deep in the water, but this means they can carry less cargo.

To ensure ships can travel safely, federal officials meet regularly, review the depth of the river and talk with the shipping industry to determine local closures and traffic restrictions. When a stretch is temporarily closed, hundreds of houseboats may line up to wait.

“It’s very dynamic: things are constantly changing,” said Eric Carrero, director of Coast Guard Western Rivers and Waterways. “Every day when we do our surveys, we find areas that are shallow and need to be dredged.”

Once a closed section has been dredged, authorities mark a safe channel and barges can pass again.

According to Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, in some places storage at barge terminals is filling up, preventing more cargo from entering. He said the influx of grain into a compromised river transport system is like “attaching a garden hose to a fire hydrant”. High costs for farmers have led some to wait to ship their goods, he added.

For tourists, a large part of the river is still accessible. Cruise ships are built to withstand the extremes of the river: Big engines battle fast currents in spring and shallow drafts allow boats to move through droughts, said Charles Robertson, president and chief executive officer. management of American Cruise Lines, which operates five cruise ships that can carry 150 people. to 190 passengers each.

Night operations are limited, however, to help ships avoid new obstacles the drought has exposed. And some landing areas are not accessible due to lack of water – the river is dry along the edges. In Vicksburg, Mississippi, a cruise ship couldn’t access a ramp that typically loads passengers, so the city, with the help of townspeople, laid down gravel and plywood to create a makeshift gangway. For some, it adds to the adventure.

“They know the headlines that most of the rest of the country reads,” Robertson said.

Drought is a prolonged problem in California, which just recorded its driest three-year spell 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 are going to keep getting drier and the wetter areas are going to keep getting wetter,” said Jen Brady, data analyst at Climate Central, a nonprofit group of scientists and researchers who reports on climate change.

Brad Pugh, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, however, said the current drought in the Midwest is likely “due to short-term weather patterns” and would not link it to climate change.

In the Midwest, climate change is increasing the intensity of some torrential rains. According to NOAA, the severity of flooding in the upper Mississippi is increasing faster than in any other region of the country.

Some fear that fertilizers and manure have accumulated on farms and could quickly wash away in heavy rain, reducing oxygen levels in rivers and streams and threatening aquatic life.

In rare cases, communities move to other drinking water sources away from the Mississippi. The drought is also threatening to dry up drinking water wells in Iowa and Nebraska, according to NOAA.

It is not known how long the drought will last. In the near term, there is a chance of rain, but NOAA notes that in November, below-average rainfall is more likely in central states such as Missouri, which would prolong navigation issues on the river. In some northern states, including Michigan, winter can bring more humidity, but less rain is expected in southern states.

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

NBC Chicago

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