WJ Editorial
WJ Editorial

Low Water And Mississippi River Drafts

With no significant rain on the horizon anywhere in the Mississippi River drainage basin, the low-water situation continues to be bleak. The Mississippi River gauge at Memphis hit -10.79 feet, the lowest since records started in 1954. 

Industry sources speak of “severe impacts to navigation not seen since 1988” and reduced ton-mile productivity. The low water, groundings, light-loading and restricted tow sizes are slowing the movement of millions of tons of corn and soybeans that the rest of the world desperately needs. It’s important to note that cargo continues to move, albeit less cargo is moving more slowly. 

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the cost of sending a ton of corn, soybeans or other grains southbound from St. Louis to southern Louisiana reached $105.85 on October 11, compared to $49.88 on September 27 and $28.45 on October 5, 2021. Along the Ohio River, prices for corn and soybeans are lower in river terminal areas—a reversal of the normal price pattern. This is happening at a time when rail and trucks are experiencing their own difficulties. 

We keep hearing about climate resiliency and the increased likelihood of floods, and also of droughts leading to low-water events. How unusual will events like this year’s low water continue to be? Even if we continue to fund the replacement of outdated locks and dams with efficient funding, will inadequate channel depths be a limiting factor if we are going to see more low-water events like this one?

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Navigation advocates have been urging replacement of 1930s-era locks and dams that have outlived their design era. The 9-foot controlling guaranteed channel draft for the Mississippi River was authorized by Congress in 1930. That depth was thought adequate back then—but so were 600-foot locks. In fact, although it’s not widely known or has been forgotten, the 1944 Flood Control Act already authorizes the Corps to maintain the Lower Mississippi at a 12-foot depth from Cairo to Baton Rouge. It’s true that during a normal year, the de facto channel is deeper than 9 feet throughout the Lower Miss—and deeper than 12 feet when the river is high. But what is “normal” anymore? How many abnormal years are in our future?

This year, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provided the first significant funding for a 12-foot depth for the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, something the industry has advocated for since 1998. The Tenn-Tom system is authorized to study a 12-foot draft. 

Is it time to begin a conversation about a 12-foot guaranteed depth for at least some sections of the Lower Mississippi?