Even before the advent of the internet and social media, legacy media had the saying, “If it bleeds, it leads.” That may sound cynical, but it reflects human nature. Wars, natural disasters and catastrophes tend to grab more eyeballs than happy talk and good news. Marketers know that, and so do headline writers.
That’s why it’s still easy to find viral eyeball-grabbing headlines about the current low water in the river systems. A recent sampling includes, “Shrunken Mississippi River Slows U.S. Food Exports When World Needs Them Most”; “Why is the Mississippi River drying up?”; and “Mississippi River finally rising—to 0 feet.” Video footage of people picking their way across temporarily dry portions of the Mississippi River to visit Tower Rock on foot are still getting views, even though the waters have risen, and that’s no longer possible.
Dramatic incidents—floods, low water, hurricanes and other disruptions—help focus attention on the importance of the river systems to our economy and nation. That attention can help direct needed resources to the waterways. At a recent conference on threats to the inland waterway system, panelists praised the recent surge of capital investment in our waterways by Congress—a surge aided by events like the floods of 2019 and Hurricane Ida. When water levels return to more normal levels, media attention shifts—even though the floods or low water can leave long-term challenges.
At this writing the Corps’ dredges are responding as needed and keeping hot spots to a minimum. Rain is offering some relief. Yes, loads and tow sizes are reduced, and yes, export cargoes are restricted, but barges are still moving, and barge freight rates have dropped back down out of the stratosphere.
Managing public attention to the waterway system is a difficult balancing act at the best of times, and our advocacy organizations have been doing a great job. The Corps, Coast Guard and industry have been working together closely and effectively during this low-water crisis to make the most out of the resources we have. But as Maj. Gen. Diana Holland, commander of the Mississippi Valley Division of the Corps of Engineers was careful to point out during the recent conference on risks to the inland waterways, the need is still outpacing funding.
We hope the new Congress can keep its eye on the ball where inland waterways are concerned and will continue to deliver the resources to allow the Corps to complete efforts underway to make the waterways system more resilient, more flexible and better able to cope with the effects of climate change and to provide the low-cost green transportation that keeps our export cargoes competitive. While media attention is short and shifting, upgrading and hardening the waterways system against risks is a long game.