The Mississippi Drought Explained: Why Is the River Drying Up?

Written by Jeremiah Wright
Published: January 22, 2023
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Quick Answer:

  • One of the main reasons the Mississippi River is drying up is climate change.
  • Currently, 16% of the state of Minnesota is experiencing severe drought, and around 50% is experiencing moderate or worse.
  • Clearwater County, home to Lake Itasca, the source of the Mississippi River, is experiencing 30% drought.

The Mississippi River is currently going through a historic drought, with multiple parts experiencing record-low water levels. On top of that, riverbeds are drying up one by one under the eyes of more than 20 million people who use daily drinking water supplied with the help of the Mississippi River.

Conditions are dire throughout the United States, however. Around 80% of the country’s surface is experiencing abnormal to moderate dryness. Some are also seeing extreme and exceptional drought, with entire counties experiencing D4 levels of drought.

The important question for the 20 million Americans mentioned above is: why is the Mississippi River drying up? We’re here to provide some insight on this matter.

Where Does the Mississippi River Take Its Water From?

lake itasca 2

The Mississippi River’s water source stems from Lake Itasca, found in northern Minnesota in Clearwater County.

©Tomaz Kunst/Shutterstock.com

The river’s water source stems from Lake Itasca, found in northern Minnesota in Clearwater County. This location is known as the traditional water source of the river. Pertinent to the topic at hand is the drought levels in Minnesota.

Currently, 16% of the state is experiencing severe drought, and around 50% is experiencing moderate or worse. Historically speaking, the drought levels in Minnesota for 2022 are the same (in fact, slightly more severe) than they were in 2021.

As for Clearwater County, 30% of its surface is experiencing moderate drought. The issue is that 30% of it (located in the southern part of the county) includes Lake Itasca, the water source of the Mississippi River. From a historical standpoint, the situation could be much worse. In 2021, during the same period, around half of Clearwater County was under severe drought (the Drought Severity and Coverage Index registered around 100 points more last year).

However, while the drought in Minnesota is one of the causes of the river drying up, it is not the main cause!

How Do Tributaries Affect the River’s Water Level?

Any freshwater stream that flows into the Mississippi River is called a tributary. The Mississippi has over 250 tributaries, each contributing to its water volume. According to statistics, the Ohio and Missouri rivers are major tributaries, along with the Arkansas, Illinois, and Red Rivers.

Remember that the drainage basin of the Mississippi River is the largest in the United States, including its tributaries.

In terms of drought, here’s where the river’s main tributaries stand:

  • Ohio River – the river is experiencing a drop in the water stages, mainly due to the lack of rainfall in the second half of 2022. At the same time, the Ohio River runs through a region of the Midwest that has been primarily affected by moderate to severe drought. The Ohio River once dried up completely in 1908;
  • Missouri River – according to statistics, over 90% of Missouri’s River Basin is experiencing abnormally dry conditions. At the same time, much of the Missouri state that the river crosses is experiencing an abnormally severe to moderate drought. Again, one of the main reasons is the lack of rain.

With the two main tributaries of the Mississippi River in drought conditions, this is another reason for the former’s drought. In short, the Mississippi is not receiving as much water as it normally does.

Drought conditions are normal in the U.S., however. As such, record-low water levels shouldn’t be achieved. This means you’re yet to be introduced to why the Mississippi River is drying up.

Why Is the Mississippi River Drying Up?

One of the main reasons the Mississippi River is drying up is climate change.

©Ralf Broskvar/Shutterstock.com

The megadrought that is currently ravishing mostly the western part of the U.S. is believed to be caused mainly by high temperatures, implicitly by global warming. The second-biggest reason would be the lack of rain. Roughly 60% of the U.S. surface (around 87% of the Western U.S.) is going through a drought in 2023, with certain research stating that the megadrought could last until 2030.

As such, one of the main reasons why the Mississippi River is drying up is climate change. California, for example, is a state whose drought is completely attributed to global warming. In contrast, the Mississippi River is missing some rain and significant water volume from its tributaries.

Statistics show that roughly 40% of the megadrought’s intensity can be attributed to climate change. The latter also impacted the way soil moisture recovers through precipitation. Even though most of the U.S. has experienced heavy rain throughout the past 22 years, it was not enough for the soil to recover its moisture as temperatures rose.

Data shows that certain parts of the U.S. territory have been in a moisture deficit since the start of the century, even though the country has been exposed to wet years in 2017, 2010, and 2005.

Historical Low Levels of the Mississippi River

News circulating at the end of October mentioned how the Tennessee part of the river had dropped to a whopping -10.75 feet, now the lowest level ever recorded in history. Speaking of lows, here are the lowest Mississippi River water levels on record:

  • On January 16, 1940, the St. Louis gauge reached a record low of -6.10 feet;
  • On February 10, 1937, the Memphis (Tennessee) gauge reached a record low of -10.70 feet. At the moment, that is no longer the lowest water level on record, as the end of October 2022 marked a level of -10.75 feet (as mentioned above);
  • The Greenville (Mississippi) gauge had a record low of 6.70 feet on February 4, 1964.

As you can see, it’s been quite some time since the Mississippi River experienced record lows. In the case of the Memphis gauge, it took about 85 years for the record to be broken, so to speak.

Currently, the Memphis gauge is still experiencing record lows in water levels. In mid-January 2023, the gauge stood at -8/73 feet, the 4th lowest on record.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Maarten Daams/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

I hold seven years of professional experience in the content world, focusing on nature, and wildlife. Asides from writing, I enjoy surfing the internet and listening to music.

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