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Focus on Agriculture

For the week of December 10, 2012

When the River Runs Dry

By Tracy Grondine

If something barring an epic flood doesn’t happen within days, the Mississippi River could be too low for navigation. Because of this year’s severe drought, waterborne commerce on the middle Mississippi River is in real danger.

For barges to move through the Mississippi River there has to be at least nine feet of water throughout the navigation channel. Current projections show that as early as mid-December, water levels in some areas of the river will fall below the 9-foot draft. With barge travel moving the majority of America’s commodities (one barge can carry 1,750 tons compared to a rail bulk car’s 110 tons and a tractor trailer’s 25 tons), and the Mississippi River being the main thoroughfare, the U.S. economy could be in drastic trouble if water levels aren’t maintained.

In December and January alone, it’s estimated the economy could take a $7 billion hit. Included in this projection is the loss of up to 20,000 jobs and $130 million in lost wages. To avoid the catastrophe, the American Farm Bureau Federation, along with other business groups, has urged President Obama to issue a presidential declaration of emergency for the Mississippi River.  They’ve also requested that he direct the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to immediately remove rock pinnacles along the river and release enough water from Missouri River reservoirs to preserve the 9-foot water level.

AFBF’s transportation specialist Andrew Walmsley says that a balanced approach is needed: a moderated but steady release of water to keep the Mississippi River flowing, coupled with the removal of large rocks to give barges more clearance in low water areas. This effort by the corps would provide a short-term solution until spring rains could help refill the river.

If the Corp doesn’t act soon, agriculture is looking at major delays in shipping its goods – like an estimated 300 million bushels of grain and oilseeds worth more than $2 billion. What happens – or doesn’t happen – on the river could have a major impact on U.S. agriculture’s global competitiveness. This is a busy time of year for farmers who are shipping out their products, trying to stay in front of South American exporters who have a later harvest. Getting the commodities to port in a timely manner is crucial for exports, but it also helps that the barges can be refilled with fertilizer and seed to go back up the river in time for spring planting.

The Mississippi River is America’s inland waterway superhighway. Aside from agriculture goods, the river transports other essential products that keep America running, like petroleum, coal and steel.  If the river gets too low it will threaten everything from domestic consumption to foreign exports, claiming manufacturing industries, power generation and thousands of Midwest jobs in its wake. As the old Irish proverb goes, you never miss the water till the well has run dry.


Tracy Taylor Grondine is director of media relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation.