The Mississippi River: A Blessing and a Curse

A Record-Breaking Drought & What You Need to Know


“The river is a blessing and a curse. Every year has got its differences.”

  • Jeremiah Hollingsworth, a generational farmer in Finley, Tennessee


Mississippi River water levels reached record lows in October 2022, creating an inconceivable shipping crisis. Thousands of barges currently wait to travel the river or recently became stuck trying. The decline of commercial traffic continues to cause prices to increase rapidly for businesses and consumers. 1-8 consumers buy something that is shipped down the Mississippi River. The only solution for this drought is rain, and there is none in the forecast.

October is notoriously a month of low water levels, but the Mississippi hasn’t experienced lows to this extreme in three decades. National Weather Service data shows waters in Memphis dropping to negative 10.79 feet last month, surpassing the long-held record of -10.7 feet in 1988. The U.S. Coast Guard has imposed restrictions on the number of barges tows can pull and how deep barges can sit in the water to prevent boats and barges from getting stuck. One recent river closure included 134 vessels and 2,081 barges unable to move. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continue to conduct emergency dredging and monitor the water levels every hour. Andy Schimpf, the River Project Ops Manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, says the drought is a “heightened concern, but not panic yet.” Farmers, factories, and businesses may disagree, as the price to ship goods has more than doubled in the past few weeks and continues to increase. The U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows the shipping costs for a ton of grains have increased by 73% in the past year. Alternate forms of shipping, including trains and trucks, can increase pollution, are often more expensive, and can be difficult to secure with the latest increase in demand.

The drought along the Mississippi River impacts shipping from Missouri to New Orleans and ultimately increases inflation in consumer goods including groceries. With thousands of barges unable to complete their shipping routes, farmers and factories are concerned about storage/spoilage. Many ports do not have water deep enough for commercial boats and barges to reach them safely. It is unclear when the drought will remedy and whether commerce traffic will continue as planned through one of the busiest times for the supply chain. Mike Ellis, chief executive of Indiana-based American Commercial Barge Line LLC says, “America is going to shut down if we shut down.”

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