As Drought Drops Water Level in the Mississippi, Shipwrecks Surface and Worries Rise
The river known for its vast reach and powerful currents has withered to levels not seen in decades, choking shipping lanes and endangering drinking water supplies.
By Rick Rojas
Rick Rojas, a national correspondent covering the South, reported this article by traveling through communities along the Lower Mississippi from Memphis to Vicksburg, Miss.
Nov. 3, 2022
Along the drought-stricken Mississippi River, a world usually hidden beneath the waves has been basking under the sun. In recent weeks, new islands have breached the surface, as have the hulls of sunken ships and a vast array of lost marine equipment. The diminished waterway that remains has been clogged with barges, stuck in the mud or waiting their turn to press ahead down a narrowed channel.
Many who live along the river have ventured out, on foot and by boat, to marvel at the unsettling spectacle.
Mark Babb is one of them. He has always been drawn to the Mississippi; his father took him camping along the banks when he was a boy, and later, he worked on towboats and as a kayak guide. He was both awed and alarmed by what he saw last month over seven days on his boat, starting in Memphis, pushing his way down the river to New Orleans and then heading back.
“It’s just the scenery — it’s so different,” Mr. Babb, 61, said.
The river has long commanded a sober respect, if not fear, with its swift currents and capacity to not only sustain the communities that have sprouted beside it for centuries, but also devastate them by swelling over its banks. But lately it has provoked a different sort of apprehension, as the consequences of the drought affecting much of the Midwest, High Plains and South reach far beyond the surreal landscape.
On the Lower Mississippi — the portion that flows south from Cairo, Ill. — the water level in some places has fallen below records set more than 30 years ago. The conditions have hamstrung one of the nation’s busiest and most vital waterways and jeopardized drinking water systems. And experts have cautioned that the substantial rainfall needed to improve the situation could be weeks away, if not longer.
“We have seen disasters regarding hurricanes, we have seen disasters regarding tornadoes,” said Errick D. Simmons, the mayor of Greenville, Miss., a port city of roughly 28,000 people in the Delta region. “But we haven’t seen a historic drought like we’re seeing on the Mississippi.”
The river is called mighty for a reason. Its main stem stretches some 2,350 miles from headwaters in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, touching 10 states and then branching out into a web of tributaries. Its watershed covers 40 percent of the continental United States.
“We’re the main vein of the country,” Joe Weiss, the general manager of the Mud Island Marina in Memphis, said as he sat on a dock that looked like it had been plopped down in a muddy parking lot. “This is never supposed to dry out.”
The river’s tremendous reach — linking soybean farms, chemical plants and food factories — has made it a crucial shipping lane for roughly 500 million tons of cargo each year, including a large portion of the world’s food supply. The dwindling water levels have not only choked barge traffic but forced the vessels to significantly lighten their loads. The cost of barge shipping has surged.
“It’s the most important working river, commodity wise, on the planet,” said Colin Wellenkamp, the executive director of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, a collective of mayors from dozens of municipalities. “We’re going to feel this globally.” The drought has caused a particular crunch for farmers who look to the Mississippi as an efficient and usually reliable method for transporting their crops. But with the river bottlenecked, the agriculture industry is straining to find alternatives, like rail and trucks, which come with their own logistical challenges and can handle only a small 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 a single barge, industry officials said.)
“We need our supply chain to be operating at full throttle,” said Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, noting that soybean farms ship 80 percent of their exports between September and February.
The Mississippi typically nears its lowest levels in the fall, but the drop has been more intense this year after a particularly dry summer in the Midwest, which failed to replenish the tributaries feeding into the river. Its withered state has also allowed saltwater to push in from the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the drinking water supply for 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 serves as a speed bump of sorts, stalling the intrusion of saltwater that, under normal conditions, would be impeded by the river’s downstream flow. The corps is also dredging to prevent more barges from becoming stuck. In addition, the authority that manages the Tennessee River system announced that it would open two dams, although experts said it would provide only a modest influx into the Mississippi.
The biggest source of relief would be rain. Yet forecasters warned that weather conditions in the coming weeks and months are not likely to be favorable.
Scientists are predicting a strong possibility of the weather phenomenon known as La Niña, which would cause a drier-than-average winter across much of the Mississippi watershed, keeping water levels low into the spring, said Clint Willson, the director of the Center for River Studies at Louisiana State University.
The disquieting sight of the parched waterway has conjured comparisons with the Colorado River, which has been even more imperiled by drought. Its waters have receded to reveal the wreckage of ships and planes, as well as human remains. Experts said that while the Mississippi was in less dire straits, its low levels, as well as flash floods in Missouri and Kentucky this summer, offer troubling signals of how the river system could face more turbulence as extreme weather events, including heat waves and large storms, are expected to become more frequent because of climate change. The conditions have led to renewed calls for making the river more sustainable and adopting new drought policies, including opening up federal disaster relief funds to drought response.
The fascination with all that the low water levels have revealed is not entirely welcome. Rita Stanley, who owns a marina on McKellar Lake, which branches off the Mississippi near Memphis, threatened to call the police as curious people trespassed on her property last week and even clambered with children onto a sunken old casino boat, now freed from the water’s grip.
“We’ve been having one heck of a time,” she said.
The ebbing lake left Ms. Stanley’s marina in a contorted position, with docks buckling in some places and her office sitting at a tilt.
“I had to take those dizzy pills — really and truly, you have to,” Ms. Stanley, 73, said, taking a break from work to eat fried fish and assess, with dread, all the cleanup work still remaining. “It’s really just a pain in the rump.”
The drought has unearthed an endless assortment of treasures: box fans, house and car keys, iPhones of various vintage. At the Mud Island Marina, Mr. Weiss’s 13-year-old daughter has collected five pairs of Ray-Ban sunglasses, and he paid her $5 for every barbecue grill she fished out of the muck.
The marina, which has slips for dozens of vessels, has floating docks hooked to towering metal poles that allow them to rise and fall along with the river levels. At the moment, the docks were lodged in the mud. A line of rust on the poles marked where the water levels typically sat. Far above it was a line of orange spray paint marking a high reached in 2011: 47.9 feet.
Mr. Babb ventured out on the river back then, too. The flooding made Downtown Memphis, which typically loomed on a bluff over the marina, accessible by kayak. “Now, this is the other extreme,” he said from his boat, a replica he had built of the paddle-wheelers that populated the river in the 1800s.
“Most people are born and raised with a sense of taboo — ‘Don’t go out there,’” Mr. Babb said of the river. “I was fortunate to have just the opposite.”
The mud had become almost like quicksand. When a local television news crew came to the marina, Mr. Weiss said, he implored an intern the group brought not to step off the dock to get the picture she wanted for Instagram. Best case scenario, he told her: “You’re going to smell for two days.”
He was hoping the water would return gradually, softening the mud so the boats could ease their way back up, sparing them the damage they could sustain if the river rose faster and yanked them out of the dried ground. One sailboat, he noted, had a keel buried six feet in the muck.
It seemed like the water would not be coming back in a hurry. As he walked the dock on a recent morning, his eyes searched for any sign of change. He found puddles accumulating in the mud, and nothing more.