Mississippi River Water Wars

Water levels in the lower stretch of the Mississippi River are so low that the U.S. Coast Guard closed a stretch of the river today after a barge tow ran aground south of Memphis. Considering that water levels are projected to continue dropping due to the worst U.S. drought in 56 years over part of the Great Plains and Upper Midwest, navigation could become severely impacted.

The United States Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that administers river and reservoir water levels, has come under pressure to delay or even to suspend the annual decrease in discharge from Missouri River reservoirs and to increase dredging and blasting work.

However, upstream water users are not rushing to agree to increased water releases. Water uses upstream include hydroelectric power, irrigation, recreation, and most recently  fracking, which is associated with Bakken oil shale production. And – even if the Corps opted to release more water for downstream users, it can’t because it must abide by the Missouri River Master Manual. Most crucially, though, the Missouri flow to the Mississippi through the Gavins Point Dam near Yankton, S.D., must increase quickly or dangerous rock pinnacles near Thebes, Illinois will be exposed which could shut down barge traffic on the Mississippi by December 10th.

The economic impact of restricted or even halted shipping on the Mississippi River is considerable. As stated in a recent National Public Radio news segment, Water Levels Dangerously Low on Mississippi River,  …”about 60 percent of the country’s grain exports and 20 percent of its coal for electric generation travel by river…”. The urgency of this situation has escalated such that barge companies are pressing President Obama to declare an emergency along the Mississippi River.

The water wars continue….