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Mississippi River levels ground barges, slows grain movement

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A child enjoys the exposed rocks from receded waters of the Mississippi River in Memphis over the weekend as water levels continue to drop below record levels. Photo by Jay Sweeney

By Sabrina Bates
MVP Regional News Editor

Country music legend Hank Williams Jr. used the phrase, “And the Mississippi River, she’s a-goin dry,” in his song, “A Country Boy Can Survive,” in 1982. In 2022, it easily comes to mind when looking at the “Mighty Mississippi” as the ongoing drought in the region continues to deplete the river’s water levels. According to NOAA, nearly 50 percent of the country and nearly 60 percent of the lower 48 states are experiencing drought conditions.
In Memphis, the levels have dropped below the record set in 1988. The Tennessee Valley Authority announced last week the levels are nearing their lowest since 1901 in Cairo, Illinois.
The river is a critical piece of natural infrastructure for 10 states, from Minnesota to Louisiana. It is used to move barges of cargo and keep saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico out of drinking water in Louisiana. As a result of low levels, barges hauling grain are facing grounding or sitting idly in the river. As Hickman-Fulton County (Kentucky) Port Authority Director Greg Curlin explains, the lack of rainfall in the region has made for some ideal harvesting conditions for farmers, but they face challenges with moving or storing their soybeans and corn.
“In the last 8-10 days, we have shut down the harbor. Boats have run aground. And we have seen some slowing down in moving what has been harvested. Farmers are trying to store their grain and the granaries have it stockpiled and trying to keep it on the ground,” Curlin said. In his 12-year time as director of the port authority, he said he has never seen the river in this condition. Last week, the Cairo, Illinois, river gauge showed 7.5 feet. On Monday, that gauge read 7.6. Curlin said it needs to get to at least 8, with a reading of 9 in the channels to keep cargo moving.
TVA announced last week it would release more water from two dams to help with water levels. “To help stabilize commercial navigation conditions on the lower Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, we are scheduling special water releases from Kentucky Dam on the Tennessee River and Barkley Dam on the Cumberland River to help low river level impacts,” TVA noted.
Curlin explained this region needs water from the Ohio River and conditions on the other side of the dams are similar with low-water levels. The port authority teams pay close attention to the Memphis District US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) as it maintains the river’s channels. The Corps dredged the Mississippi River once this summer and is working on more emergency dredging to deepen the channels for passage. Curlin said the river is already full of sand and silt and dredging helps to deepen the river.
While the USACE is working to help get freight moving in this region, it is undertaking another project in Louisiana as saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico threatens to impact water treatment facilities. The USACE is constructing a 1,500-foot wide, 35-foot tall underwater levee to keep the saltwater out of the drinking water. One coastal parish is already under a drinking water advisory.
The Dorena-Hickman Ferry, one of the oldest and few remaining ferries, has been grounded off and on as a result of low river levels since mid-summer. On Sept. 15, the ferry announced it will remain closed until further notice. The Dorena-Hickman Ferry carries passengers across the Mississippi River from Kentucky into Missouri.
Curlin said on Monday the forecast of rain in the region this week is much-needed, but the Ohio Valley needs to receive a significant amount of rain to help with the river’s water levels. According to the National Weather Service of Memphis, a front along the Upper Great Lakes has the potential to bring heavy rainfall over parts of the Middle Mississippi Valley and Western Ohio Valley mid-week.

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