Relief Could Be Coming for Low River


Mississippi River water levels approaching historic lows in the Mid-South are expected to rise during the next few weeks due to increased precipitation to the northeast.

“Conditions on the river are greatly improving due to rain in the Ohio River basin in the past few days, and we are expecting a nice rainfall event there this weekend that will help the river rise more,” said David Berretta, chief of hydraulics and the hydrology branch for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Memphis district. “When conditions are this low, it doesn’t take much rain to produce a decent rise in river levels.”

Berretta expects the river to rise here from minus 8.2 feet on the Memphis gauge to minus 7.4 feet by Monday, Dec. 10, and as much as a three-foot increase is expected in areas to the north.

“I expect that we could be looking at numbers around zero by the 20th of the month,” he said.

The worst drought in decades is the cause of the river’s low water levels. The all-time registered low was minus 10.7 feet in June 1988.

“The chances of us reaching the record low right now have diminished,” Berretta said.

River levels, which are normally plus-10 feet to plus-20 feet this time of year, usually rise during November and December due to more precipitation to the north.

“The chances of us reaching the record low right now
have diminshed.”

–David Berretta, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Memphis district

A weekly U.S. Drought Monitor report in late November showed that more than 60 percent of the continental U.S. was in some form of drought. If levels continue to drop overall, then some sections of the river to the north of Memphis could become impassable and might even shut down.

The Army Corps of Engineers recently began reducing the outflow from an upper Missouri River reservoir to alleviate drought conditions.

“There is the potential for us to have additional low water levels due to the shutdown of the Missouri River and a long-range forecast that shows less precipitation in the upper Ohio Valley and the Missouri Valley,” said Randy Richardson, executive director of the International Port of Memphis.

Memphis gets approximately 60 percent of its river water from the Ohio River and 40 percent from the upper Mississippi River north of Cairo, Ill., that includes the Missouri River.

Reducing the amount of water flowing into the Mississippi River could mean restrictions on barge traffic in Missouri and Illinois in December, or even closure of the river from St. Louis to Cairo, Ill., which could cost the state of Missouri an estimated 3,000 jobs.

The Army Corps of Engineers plans to blow up the jagged bedrocks in that area of the river in February to clear the way for more river traffic. Companies and trade groups are asking the Corps to restore the flow and to expedite removal of rock formations that restrict barge traffic.

“Down here in the Lower Mississippi, we have the luxury of being able to go in and dredge, because the soil is mostly sand or silt, and make the channel deeper,” Richardson said.

The low river levels are having an impact on local companies that utilize the river to transport goods.

“Due to the low water levels on the Mississippi River, the Memphis Corn Milling facility is continuing to work diligently to ensure our customers’ needs are met,” said Nicole Reichert, external communications manager with Cargill Corn Milling North America.