As drought lowers water levels in the Mississippi, shipwrecks surface and worries grow
Along the drought-stricken Mississippi River, a world usually hidden beneath the waves is basking in the sun. In recent weeks, new islands have risen to the surface, as have the hulls of sunken ships and a vast array of lost naval equipment. The reduced waterway that remains is clogged with barges, stuck in mud or waiting their turn to press forward down the narrowed channel.
Many who live along the river have ventured out, on foot and by boat, to admire the disturbing spectacle.
Mark Babb is one of them. He had always been drawn to the Mississippi; his father took him camping along the coast when he was a boy, and later he worked on towboats and as a kayak guide. He was both amazed and disturbed by what he saw last month during seven days on his boat, starting in Memphis, pushing down the river to New Orleans and then back.
“It’s just the scenery – it’s so different,” Mr Babb, 61, said.
The river has long inspired sober respect, if not fear, with its swift currents and ability to not only sustain the communities that have sprung up alongside it for centuries, but to devastate them by swelling over its banks. But lately it’s raised a different kind of fear, as the effects of the drought affecting much of the Midwest, the High Plains and the South reach far beyond the surreal landscape.
In the Lower Mississippi – the section that flows south of Cairo, Ill. – the water level in some places fell below the records set more than 30 years ago. The conditions disrupted one of the nation’s busiest and most vital waterways and threatened drinking water systems. Experts warned that the significant rainfall needed to improve the situation could be several weeks, if not longer.
“We’ve seen hurricane disasters, we’ve seen tornado disasters,” said Errick D. Simmons, mayor of Greenville, Miss., a port city of about 28,000 people in the Delta region. “But we haven’t seen the historic drought we’re seeing in Mississippi.”
The river is called mighty for a reason. Its main stem stretches about 2,350 miles from its headwaters in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, touching 10 states and then branching off into a network of tributaries. Its watershed covers 40 percent of the continental United States.
“We’re the lifeblood of the country,” said Joe Weiss, general manager of Mud Island Marina in Memphis as he sat on a dock that looked like it had been demolished in a muddy parking lot. “This should never dry up.”
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The river’s vast reach – connecting soybean farms, chemical plants and food factories – has made it a key shipping lane for roughly 500 million tons of cargo each year, including much of the world’s food supply. Falling water levels not only stifled barge traffic, but forced vessels to significantly lighten their cargoes. Barge transport costs have increased.
“It’s the most important working river, commodity-wise, on the planet,” said Colin Wellenkamp, executive director of the Mississippi River Towns and Cities Initiative, a collective of mayors from dozens of municipalities. “We will feel this globally.” The drought has created a particular crisis for farmers who look to the Mississippi as an efficient and usually reliable way to transport their crops. But with the river at a bottleneck, the agricultural industry is scrambling to find alternatives, such as rail and truck, which come with their own logistical challenges and can handle only a fraction of what even a reduced barge load can carry. (It would take 16 rail cars or 62 semi-trucks to transport the same amount as one barge, industry officials said.)
“We need our supply chain running full throttle,” said Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soybean Shipping Coalition, noting that soybean farms ship 80 percent of their exports between September and February.
The Mississippi usually nears its lowest level in the fall, but this year’s decline was more intense after a particularly dry summer in the Midwest, which failed to replenish the tributaries that flow into the river. Its parched condition has also allowed saltwater to seep in from the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the drinking water supply of Louisiana communities that draw from the river.
Last month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers installed a barrier made of sediment that stretches across the riverbed and acts as a barrier, stopping the intrusion of saltwater that would normally be obstructed by the river’s downstream flow. The Corps is also dredging to prevent more barges from getting stuck. In addition, the authority that manages the Tennessee River system announced it would open two dams, although experts said that would allow only a modest inflow into the Mississippi.
The biggest source of relief would be rain. However, forecasters warned that the weather in the coming weeks and months is unlikely to be favorable.
Scientists predict a strong possibility of a weather phenomenon known as La Niña, which would cause a drier-than-average winter in much of the Mississippi basin, keeping water levels low until spring, said Clint Willson, director of the Center for River Studies at Louisiana State University.
The worrying sight of the dried-up waterway has led to comparisons with the Colorado River, which is even more threatened by drought. Its waters receded and revealed wrecks of ships and planes, as well as human remains. Experts said that while the Mississippi was under less severe conditions, its low levels, as well as flash floods in Missouri and Kentucky this summer, offer troubling signals that the river system could face more turbulence from extreme weather events, including heat waves and large storms are expected to become more frequent due to climate change. The conditions have led to renewed calls to make the river more sustainable and the adoption of new drought policies, including opening up federal disaster relief funds for drought response.
Fascination with everything revealed by low water levels is not entirely welcome. Rita Stanley, owner of a marina on Lake McKellar, which branches off the Mississippi near Memphis, threatened to call the police after onlookers invaded her property last week and even climbed with children onto the sunken old casino boat, which has now been freed. from the water. flu.
“We had a heck of a time,” she said.
The encroaching lake left Ms Stanley’s marina in a cramped position, with docks buckling in places and her office leaning.
“I had to take those vertigo pills – you really, really have to,” said Ms Stanley, 73, taking a break from work to eat fried fish and assess with horror that all the cleaning work still remained. “It’s really just a pain in the butt.”
The drought unearthed an endless assortment of treasures: box fans, house and car keys, iPhones of various vintages. At Mud Island Marina, Mr. Weiss’s 13-year-old daughter collected five pairs of Ray-Ban sunglasses, and he paid her $5 for each grill she pulled from the mud.
The marina, which has slipways for dozens of vessels, has floating docks attached to tall metal poles that allow them to rise and fall with the river level. At this point, the docks were stuck in the mud. The rust line on the posts marked where the water level was usually located. Far above it was a line of orange spray paint marking the height reached in 2011: 47.9 feet.
Mr. Babb then also ventured to the river. The flooding made downtown Memphis, which usually sits on a bluff above the marina, accessible by kayak. “This is the other extreme,” he said from his boat, a replica he built from the rowing wheels that populated the river in the 1800s.
“Most people are born and raised with a sense of taboo — ‘Don’t go there,'” Mr. Babb said of the river. “I was lucky enough to have the exact opposite.”
The mud became almost like quicksand. When a local television news crew came to the marina, Mr. Weiss said, he begged an intern the group had brought to stay off the dock to get the picture she wanted for Instagram. At best, he told her, “You’re going to stink for two days.”
He hoped that the water would gradually return, softening the silt so that the boats could ease their way back, sparing them the damage they might suffer if the river rose faster and pulled them out of the parched land. One sailboat, he noted, had its keel buried six feet in the mud.
It didn’t look like the water was going to recede any time soon. As he walked along the dock last morning, his eyes searched for any sign of change. He found puddles gathering in the mud, and nothing more.
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