Record low snowfall is causing low water levels and thus harming navigation on the Mississippi River, potentially hurting local and national economies to the tune of $2 billion, according to The American Wetlands Foundation.
Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that only seven percent of the country is currently covered by snow, the lowest percentage in recorded history. Some 60.2 percent of the contiguous United States was still under moderate to extreme drought conditions at the end of October, according to the US Drought Monitor.
As a result, by early next month, a shallower Mississippi River may impair navigation between St. Louis and Cairo, Illinois. This comes at the end of harvest in the Midwest, and it is estimated that if the river shuts down, more than $2 billion in agricultural commodities, such as corn and wheat, will be at risk, according to AWF.
Some 86 percent of water used to produce the nation’s corn and soybeans comes from the Mississippi River Basin, which produces 92 percent of US agricultural exports. The bulk of products and goods from America’s heartland – worth about $10 billion a year – are shipped out of Louisiana ports, and the Mississippi is also the storm drain for 41 percent of America, the AWF said.
Speaking at AWF’s Mississippi River-focused The Big River Lives forum, Illinois state climatologist Jim Angel warned that 80 percent of the upper Missouri and Mississippi basins are struggling with drought and the recovery will be long and slow.
The river is also at risk of shifting its path, according to J. David Rogers, the Karl F. Hasselmann chair in geological engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology.
“We’re not proactive in how we manage the river,” Rogers said. “This system is getting ready to bounce out of its engineered channel and go somewhere else. And when it does, it’s going to be a huge mess.
“We’re dealing with aging infrastructure, which means we have an engineering problem, and it’s a serious one,” he added.
In a column for Environmental Leader in October, Waterless Co. founder and CEO Klaus Reichardt argued that given the ongoing drought conditions, the most significant way America can start using water more efficiently is by upgrading infrastructure. US water delivery infrastructure has deteriorated to such an extent that one in six gallons of water is lost as a result of leaky pipes that allow water to seep back into the ground, he says.