Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Drought and the Mississippi

The absolute worst thing that could happen after last summer's drought was an extra-dry fall.  Much of the corn and beans that were planted contained many "drought-resistant" varieties that were designed to suck out the last molecule of water from the soils in an attempt save themselves.  And while these characteristics probably saved something like 1/4 of the crop, it left the ground bone dry by harvest.  To show how dry, I got a pretty good picture of the amount of dust just one combine stirred up last fall.  It is dry!  This is Minnesota—it doesn't get this dry.

A nice wet fall would have recharged the soil.  But as can be seen from the story below—that did not happen anywhere throughout the Mississippi / Missouri River Basin.  And it's not like we don't ordinarily get rain in the fall—in 2010 we actually had fall flooding.  (LOVE those weather extremes, huh?)  Of course, this extra-dry fall means we have a head start on next summer's potential drought.

Whether or not suspending barge traffic will have much effect on the real economy is actually a very interesting question.  Even though shipping by river is extremely energy efficient and therefore very cheap for shipping bulk goods, barge traffic on the Mississippi is down dramatically over the last 30 years for a wide assortment of reasons.  Here in Minnesota, the long trip to New Orleans, plus the damage to Louisiana terminal facilities from Katrina, plus the delays caused by the rebuilding of the Panama Canal, plus a dramatic shift in grain markets to Asia means that much of the grain that used to barge down the Mississippi now gets hauled to the Pacific northwest docks by train.  In any case, barge traffic stops when Lake Pepin freezes over so we don't count on this form of transportation in the winter anyway.

But whether the problem is dry soils or low river flows shutting down barge traffic, this continuing drought in the middle of North America has serious implications for the global food supply.

Low Mississippi water levels may halt barges

November 18, 2012
By JIM SALTER and JIM SUHR ~ The Associated Press

ST. LOUIS -- The gentle whir of passing barges is as much a part of life in St. Louis as the Gateway Arch and the Cardinals: a constant, almost soothing backdrop to a community intricately intertwined with the Mississippi River.

But next month, barges packing such necessities as coal, farm products and petroleum could instead be parked along the river's banks. The stubborn drought that has gripped the Midwest for much of the year has left the Mighty Mississippi critically low -- and it will become even lower if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers presses ahead with plans to reduce the flow from a Missouri River dam.

Mississippi River interests fear the reduced flow will force a halt to barge traffic at the river's midpoint. They warn the economic fallout will be enormous, potentially forcing job cuts, raising fuel costs and pinching the nation's food supply.

"This could be a major, major impact at crisis level," said Debra Colbert, senior vice president of the Waterways Council, a public policy organization representing ports and shipping companies. "It is an economic crisis that is going to ripple across the nation at a time when we're trying to focus on recovery."

At issue is a plan by the corps to significantly reduce the amount of water released from the Gavins Point Dam near Yankton, S.D., a move to conserve water in the upper Missouri River basin also stung by the drought. The outflow, currently at 36,500 cubic feet per second, is expected to be cut to 12,000 cubic feet per second over several days, beginning Friday.

The Missouri River flows gently into the Mississippi River around a bend just north of St. Louis. From there, about 60 percent of the Mississippi water typically comes from the Missouri. This year, because of the drought, the Mississippi is more reliant on Missouri River water -- 78 percent of the Mississippi River at St. Louis is water that originated from the Missouri.

The Mississippi is so low there now that if it drops another 5 feet, barge traffic might be halted from St. Louis to the confluence of the Ohio River at Cairo, Ill., perhaps as soon as early December. Barges already are required to carry lighter loads.

Major Gen. John Peabody, commander of the Mississippi Valley Division of the corps, said the reduced Missouri River flow will remove 2-3 feet of depth of the Mississippi at St. Louis. To help offset that, he has authorized an emergency release of water from an upper Mississippi River reservoir in Minnesota. But that will add just 3-6 inches of depth at St. Louis.

Corps officials responsible for the Missouri River say they have no choice but to reduce the flow. A congressionally-authorized document -- the Missouri River Master Manual -- was completed about a decade ago, and requires the corps to protect interests of the Missouri River. What happens on the Mississippi as a result is incidental.

"We don't believe we have the authority to operate for the Mississippi River," said Jody Farhat, chief of the Water Management Division for the corps' Northwest Division.

Farhat said the drought is taking a toll on the upper Missouri River basin. Recreation is being hurt because water is so shallow, she said. Indian artifacts normally under water are being exposed, making them prone to looters. And if the drought persists into next year as expected, hydropower could be affected.

As a result, she said, water behind the reservoirs must be conserved rather than released.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri have all expressed concerns about the plan to cut the flow. An editorial Friday in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch urged Congress to come up with a management plan for the entire ecosystem, not just the Missouri River.

"Until Congress gives a higher priority to the nation's great rivers, and acts as a referee among competing interests, all of us will pay," the editorial read. more

No comments:

Post a Comment