Low Water Returns To River Systems

As drought and heat continue to scorch the center of the U.S. landmass, it’s not just farmers who are praying for more rain. Unless substantial amounts of rain are forthcoming, river systems will continue drying up and threaten a return to low-water conditions similar to last year’s historic lows. Soils are so dry that recent short-lived storms have not been enough to recharge rivers.

According to the July 4 U.S. Drought Monitor, moderate to exceptional drought covered 22.6 percent of the United States, about the same as the previous week. Drought or abnormal dryness expanded or intensified across parts of the Pacific Northwest, Southern Plains, Upper Mississippi Valley and Missouri to eastern Kansas.  Extremely dry soils mean that occasional storms are not enough to recharge water tables or replenish rivers.

The drought conditions triggered a special July 6 meeting at the National Integrated Drought Information System, a division of the National Oceanic and Aeronautics Administration that runs the website The NIDIS reported that dry conditions across the entire Mississippi River Basin (including the Missouri and Ohio basins) are driving well below average (15+ feet) river stages throughout the Lower Mississippi River from St. Louis, Mo., to the Gulf of Mexico, where low river stages are already causing issues and increased concerns for shipping.

The Memphis river gage was just about at zero recently; at the same time last year it was 1.11, a foot higher. The St. Louis gage stood at 2.32 feet, versus 10.9 feet at the same time a year ago. By comparison, in both 2020 and 2021 the gages stood at about 20 feet in both locations.

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Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, said that even during the spring high water, he was concerned that low water could quickly return, given the dry soil. “The worry was that any prolonged period of dry weather could result in the pendulum swinging back to low water conditions. This unfortunately has occurred,” he said.

Above St. Louis in the Upper Mississippi, low water has been  mitigated by dams and last winter’s heavy snowfalls. But heavy snowmelt and spring floods caused silt to shoal in the Upper Mississippi. The Corps Dredge Potter was scheduled to start dredging at UMR Mile 171, and the Dredge Hurley is estimated to arrive at UMR Mile 16 on July 11.

The Corps dredge Jadwin is dredging to 12 feet at Vicksburg. Miss., where the gage stands at zero feet. The Flood Control Act of 1944 gives the Corps the authority to dredge the mid-Mississippi River channel to 12 feet at need. According to Marty Hettel, vice president of governmental affairs at ACBL and a member of the Inland Waterway Users Board, the Jadwin is scheduled to dredge to 12 feet at four spots on the mid-Mississippi. “The Corps is being more proactive this year than it was last year,” he told The Waterways Journal.

American Commercial Barge Line announced July 12 that due to river predictions, there is now a 10 percent reduction in St. Louis loading drafts and a 5 percent reduction on the Illinois River and Mid-Mississippi loading drafts. ACBL had already implemented a 20 percent draft reduction for loadings in the Gulf to Cairo, Ill., and a 15 percent draft reduction from Cairo to the Gulf. River levels have been steadily falling in New Orleans since mid-April.