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Low levels on the Mississippi River could persist through the winter

A barge is transported through a lock on Wednesday, July 26, 2023 at the Melvin Price Lock And Dam on the Mississippi River.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
A barge is transported through a lock on Wednesday, July 26, 2023 at the Melvin Price Lock And Dam on the Mississippi River.

Low water levels for a second straight year on the Mississippi River are causing problems at a critical time for those who rely on the river.

Fall is typically a busy time as farmers harvest their crops and look to ship those products down the river to eventually be exported, said Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition.

“It’s game time in agriculture, and we need our supply chain to be firing on all cylinders, and unfortunately that’s not occurring right now,” he said.

The low levels are restricting the efficiency of barges by limiting how many barges can use the river and how much product they can ship, Steenhoek said.

“When you have less water in the river, you can’t load as much freight, in our case soybeans, per barge as you normally would,” he said.

The persistent drought across the Midwest this summer has left the ground in many places thirsty for any water, limiting what may reach creeks or streams and eventually the Mississippi, said Mike Welvaert, a hydrologist at the North Central River Forecast Center.

“We’ve only been seeing a very minimal amount of that reaching the river,” he said. “We’re so far behind normal that we just can’t catch up.”

Welvaert explained rain that fell in parts of Minnesota in late September helped replenish soil moisture, lakes and other smaller bodies of water.

The lower river levels are also coming earlier this year compared to last, which set record lows in some places, said Illinois State Climatologist Trent Ford.

“That doesn’t bode well for this year given that without additional wetter weather across the region, those river levels are forecast to continue to drop,” he said.

Ford added that fall is usually not a wet time of year for the center of the country.

“Even if we keep up with climatology, which is not what we’re doing right now, it’s hard to improve these big river conditions,” he said. “And it's certainly hard to do it quickly.”

Now, Ford is focused on the winter months, which can be a time when the Mississippi River can experience some recharge.

“Last year, when we got very little snow and it was mild, that’s not what we need,” he said. “What we really need is a cold, wet and snowy winter to help recharge this river.”

Welvaert is also eyeing the winter months, but for a different reason.

“In winter when things start freezing the flow really shuts off from up north,” he said. “We call that an ice bite, and that happens pretty much every December.”

This could mean the low levels on the river could persist through winter until the spring thaw, Welvaert said. It could be avoided if the region gets more precipitation, he added, though seasonal precipitation forecasts don’t predict above-average rainfall for the Midwest at this point.

Copyright 2023 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East area in Illinois for St. Louis Public Radio. He joins the news team as its first Report for America corps member and is tasked with expanding KWMU's coverage east from the Mississippi. Before joining St. Louis Public Radio, Eric held competitive internships at Fox News Channel, NPR-affiliate WSHU Public Radio and AccuWeather. As a news fellow at WSHU's Long Island Bureau, he covered governments and environmental issues as well as other general assignments. Eric grew up in Northern Colorado but attended Stony Brook University, in New York where he earned his degree in journalism in 2018. He is an expert skier, avid reader and lifelong musician-he plays saxophone and clarinet.