4 Issues Being Caused By the Mississippi River’s Historically Low Water Levels

Written by Sharon Parry
Updated: October 5, 2023
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The mighty Mississippi River is experiencing exceptionally low water levels. A megadrought that has ravished the western part of the US has contributed to this problem and has probably been triggered by climate change. Data released by the National Integrated Drought Information System indicates that a lack of rainfall across the Mississippi River basin has resulted in river stages that are 15 feet below average throughout the lower Mississippi River. This problem is occurring from St. Louis, Missouri to the Gulf of Mexico. It is causing some major issues in the area that are affecting both human and animal populations.

1. Disruption of River Traffic

There have been many reports of river traffic becoming grounded on the lower Mississippi River below Cairo, Illinois. The situation is so serious that barge companies are having to introduce mandatory reductions on loads and are reducing total sizes by up to 20 percent.

The US Army has been trying to maintain a 9-foot navigation channel in the river and dredge boats are battling to maintain routes. A one-way traffic system has also been introduced to try to prevent groundings. Agricultural exports are likely to be particularly affected by this issue.

Drought along the Mississippi River by the confluence with the Missouri River, St. Louis, Missouri

Low water levels in the Mississippi River affect humans and wildlife.

©Danita Delimont/Shutterstock.com

2. Saltwater Entering the River

Water levels in the Mississippi are now so low that saltwater can rush upstream from the Gulf of Mexico. This is possible because the bottom of the river is deeper than the bottom of the sea. Without a powerful river flow, there is nothing to stop saltwater from traveling upstream. The phenomenon is called the saltwater wedge.

Drinking water is abstracted from the Mississippi River and if chloride levels in the river exceed the Environmental Protection Agency standard of 250 ppm it causes public health issues. Some cities in the area are having to implement water conservation measures. More than 133 million people living in the Mississippi River watershed are dependent on this source of water.

3. Increased Commodity Prices

Dredging and engineering works to keep the Mississippi shipping channels open inevitably cost money. Low river levels also cause delays to major infrastructure projects such as the construction of wind turbines. This has a knock-on effect in terms of higher electricity prices, higher food costs, and higher costs for building and construction materials.

4. Damage to Mississippi Wildlife

The Mississippi River creates habitats for around 50 mammal species, 45 amphibian species, and 241 fish species. Migratory birds rely on the environment as they travel to and from Canada. There are already reports of shrimp and oysters dying at unprecedented levels. Several of the species in the area were already threatened or endangered. Examples include the ornate box turtle and skipjack herrings.

There have been previous droughts that have affected the river levels. One notable example was in 1988 when record low water flows resulted in barge traffic having to be stopped during June and July. It’s estimated that this cost the barge industry over $1 billion. The true cost of this year’s drought is yet to be revealed.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Justin Wilkens/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Dr Sharon Parry is a writer at A-Z animals where her primary focus is on dogs, animal behavior, and research. Sharon holds a PhD from Leeds University, UK which she earned in 1998 and has been working as a science writer for the last 15 years. A resident of Wales, UK, Sharon loves taking care of her spaniel named Dexter and hiking around coastlines and mountains.

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