Mississippi River: From Waterworld to Water Wars

By , AccuWeather.com Senior Meteorologist
December 6, 2012; 5:50 AM ET
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It was during the spring of 2011, when a large part of the Mississippi Valley seemed like the science fiction movie "Waterworld." However, ongoing drought over much of the basin since the spring of 2012 has turned concern around 180 degrees.

The latest in atmospheric extremes have been depriving many areas of the Plains and the Upper Midwest of needed rainfall.

Battles continue to heat up over water management of the Mississippi River and some of its tributaries, but not for flood control. The issue now is how the little water that is left is shared.

Water levels for much of the winter are likely to continue to plunge over much of the Mississippi River, especially north of the Ohio River confluence.

The low water levels will not only impact the local economy along the river, but perhaps on a national basis as well.

SEE RELATED: Boats Scrape Bottom and Businesses Suffer as Great Lakes Near Record Lows

Weather Setup

During the summer of 2012, Mississippi River levels challenged half-century lows at a number of locations. While slight recovery occurred during the first part of the fall, river levels are again on their way down and could challenge record low marks.

A large portion of the Mississippi River, north of the Ohio River gathers its moisture from the Great Plains and the Upper Midwest, which is experiencing severe to exceptional drought.

According to Paul Pastelok, head of AccuWeather.com's Long Range Weather Team, "The pattern we expect this winter is not favorable for many large storms with heavy precipitation over the Plains and the Upper Midwest."

Pastelok stated that there would be more frequent episodes of rain, ice and snow over part of the Ohio Basin, Appalachians and East Coast.

There are likely to be weak, small, fast-moving storms, known as Alberta Clippers, with a bit of snow over the Upper Midwest.

These storms would not be enough to greatly impact trucking or rail activity.

"However, there is always the potential for a couple of larger storms that don't fit the mold," Pastelok cautioned.

According to Michael R. Smith, Sr. Vice President and Chief Innovation Executive of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions, "A large storm could have more substantial impact on trucking and rail operations straining to pick up the burden of lost transport on the Mississippi River."

From a hydrological standpoint, the forecast clipper pattern would likely not be enough to contribute to much runoff come spring over the Plains and the upper Mississippi River.

During the winter, drought tends to become less noticeable to most people. Evaporation rates are low and most consumers need less water. However, over part of the Plains and Upper Midwest, the ongoing lack of heavy precipitation and the formation of ice in the topsoil and tributaries would translate to even lower levels on the Mississippi.

Water Wars

Battles are in progress for water management of the Mississippi River and some of its tributaries.

The United States Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for managing river and reservoir levels over a large part of the nation.

During the winter season, the Corps reduces the release of water from reservoirs, so that an adequate supply is maintained for agriculture, the public and industry during the early spring. The philosophy is that during the winter lower flows on the rivers reduce the potential for damaging ice build-up, allow the rivers to absorb heavy runoff, and reduce the risk of flooding into the spring.

During times of drought, or when high flow rates create sand bars, the Corps will dredge or blast rock away from the Mississippi River bottom to keep the main channel open.

Reservoir levels over the Missouri Basin are also being impacted by the drought.

The reservoirs are running below-average for this time of the year. The Missouri River feeds into the Mississippi River at St. Louis.

At St. Louis, the Mississippi River is projected to continue to fall into the first part of the winter. National Weather Service hydrologists are forecasting the level to dip within a couple of feet of the record low of minus 6.1 feet set during January of 1940 by the middle of December. The all-time record mark could be reached before the end of the year if the weather pattern does not change.

Barge operations will continue to trend less efficient and could come to a halt along the Mississippi River from St. Louis to Cairo, Ill. (the Ohio River joins the Mississippi at Cairo).

According to the Associated Press, lobbyists for barge operations and ports have been pressuring the Corps to delay or suspend the annual turn down of discharge from Missouri River reservoirs. There has also been pressure to step up the Corps' dredging and blasting operations.

Economic Impact

Each year barges move billions of dollars of goods along the Mississippi River ranging from fuels, ice-melting compounds, fertilizer, raw materials and grain. While there are other means to ship these goods over the middle of the nation, floating the materials on water is the least expensive and currently the most efficient means.

The ports and barge companies that use them are a major part of the economy in the region.

"If water levels drop substantially, it will take a bite of the U.S. GNP as other modes of transportation (rail and trucking) will struggle to pick up the slack," Smith said.

An empty barge, top, pulls along side a barge filled with soybeans as they prepare to switch places at an Archer Daniels Midland grain river terminal along the Mississippi River Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, in Sauget, Ill. The potential closure of the river due to low water levels has raised concern for barge companies and others who use the river for shipping with a prolonged shutdown of the river possibly costing billions of dollars in losses. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

During drought, not only does the river become shallow, but the shipping channel narrows.

When river levels get too low, tugs have to lighten the load on individual barges and limit the number of barges they can pull to avoid running aground or collisions with other tugs in the narrowing channel. The levels are getting to the point where some of the tugs used to pull the barges are now at risk for getting stuck on the bottom.

"Shipping costs will increase and deliveries will be delayed," Smith said, "Asking trains and trucks to take this over is a huge burden."

Water Supply

There are also issues if water levels are not maintained on the reservoirs.

The Ogallala Aquifer, located over the central and southern High Plains is one of the world's largest shallow underground water supplies.

According to an article published in Scientific American, increased demand caused by higher temperatures and a lack of rain has depleted the aquifer by 50 percent in recent decades.

About 30 percent of the nation's ground water used for irrigation is supplied this the aquifer. Close to 80 percent of the drinking water in the region also originates from the aquifer. The remainder of the water for agriculture and drinking purposes comes from streams, reservoirs and rainfall in the region.

Stacking the Deck

It is too early to speculate on the exact amount of rainfall for next year's growing season.

However, given water levels at hand and the ongoing pattern this winter, the deck of drought is already stacked for next year.

If the drought continues into next summer, more serious challenges will not only face agriculture, transport and economy in the region, but upward pressure on related consumer prices could increase substantially.

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