Mississippi River Drought Closes Portion of Waterway Again

The towboat Roberta Tabor pushes barges up the Mississippi River
The towboat Roberta Tabor pushes barges up the Mississippi River in Granite City, Ill. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg News)

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Drought has again closed a portion of the Mississippi River — and this time shrunk a part of the major U.S. waterway in Memphis, Tenn., to its lowest level ever.

Waters in Memphis fell to a reading of negative 10.79 feet late Oct. 17, narrowly lower than the previous low of negative 10.70 set in 1988, according to National Weather Service data. Part of the river near Hickman, Ky., was shut for dredging after barges grounded, leaving 59 vessels with more than 700 barges waiting to pass, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Drought and extreme weather are straining global trade across parts of the globe. The Mississippi and the Rhine River in Europe have shrunk this year, and a La Nina weather pattern has contributed to severe flooding in Pakistan and Australia. On the Mississippi, shipping costs for barges have surged and thousands of boats have been delayed at low-water stretches.

The river remained closed on Oct. 18 about 125 miles (201 kilometers) northeast of Memphis, near Hickman, Tenn., for dredging to remove debris from the river bottom. The river was closed earlier this month near Stack Island, Miss.

Soybean transport chart

The industry further reduced operating drafts to nine feet in both directions as of Oct. 17, according to a note on American Commercial Barge Line’s website. That’s about a 24%-30% reduction from the amount each barge can carry in normal conditions.

“We are seeing some signs of a little bit of rainfall with the cold fronts working their way through, but nothing that will get us out of the low-water situation,” said Jeff Graschel, a hydrologist at the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center.

With assistance from Brian K. Sullivan and Dominic Carey.

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