What A Difference A Year Makes

Iowa Farm Scene

In spring and summer 2011, flooding was the problem on Missouri River. Now 2012 drought has water levels too low.

Published on: November 27, 2012

In the spring and summer of 2011, the governors of Midwest states accused the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of negligence. Decisions by the corps caused major flooding along the Missouri River as the corps released too much water from reservoirs upstream in the Dakotas and Montana. That big release of water flowed downstream and flooded farmers and homeowners who lived too close to the river or who farmed land near the river. Now, in 2012, the corps is being begged by shipping interests to increase flows on the Missouri River to aid barge shipping on the Mississippi River.

The flooding problem that occurred along the Missouri River in 2011 was caused by a record winter snowfall in the Rocky Mountains and heavy rainstorms that spring. The problem this year is drought. Losses to farmers, businesses and homeowners along the Missouri River were substantially impacted in 2011 by the flooding, but the economic impact of the drought this year could be more widespread if it shuts down barge traffic on the Mississippi River.

LOW FLOW: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has reduced the water flow on the Missouri River. Last week they began reducing the release of water from the huge Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota. That move will lower the flow on the Mississippi River to the point it may bring barge traffic to a halt by December 10 or so -- the barge companies are warning. Main concern is the section of the Mississippi River from Cairo, Ill. (southern tip of Illinois) to St. Louis. The Missouri River empties into the Mississippi River near St. Louis. Governors, Congressional representatives, trade groups and companies are all asking the corps to restore the flow until at least some big rocks can be removed from that section of the river.
LOW FLOW: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has reduced the water flow on the Missouri River. Last week they began reducing the release of water from the huge Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota. That move will lower the flow on the Mississippi River to the point it may bring barge traffic to a halt by December 10 or so -- the barge companies are warning. Main concern is the section of the Mississippi River from Cairo, Ill. (southern tip of Illinois) to St. Louis. The Missouri River empties into the Mississippi River near St. Louis. Governors, Congressional representatives, trade groups and companies are all asking the corps to restore the flow until at least some big rocks can be removed from that section of the river.

Army Corps of Engineers last week reduced the water flow on Missouri River
As promised, the Army Corps of Engineers last week began reducing the release of water from the huge Gavins Point Dam on the upper Missouri River in South Dakota. "That move could reduce the flow on the Mississippi River to the point where it may bring barge traffic to a halt," says Kyle Tapley, an ag meteorologist with MDA Weather Services, a private weather forecasting firm.

Water levels on the Mississippi River may drop to historic lows in the Midwest, delaying barges carrying everything from grain and coal, to steel and petroleum, after the worst U.S. drought in 56 years occurred in 2012. Reports are the Mississippi may be too shallow to navigate by December 10 from St. Louis south about 180 miles to Cairo, Ill., where the Mississippi meets the Ohio River.

Barges on the Mississippi handle about 60% of the grain exports that enter the Gulf of Mexico through New Orleans, according to information from the Iowa Corn Growers Association. The U.S. is the world's largest shipper of corn, wheat and soybeans. The number of barges moving south on the Mississippi fell to 660 for the week ending October 10, down from 691 a year earlier, according to data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A total of 488 barges moved north, down 26% from a year earlier.

Barge shipping on Mississippi River is at risk from low levels of water
The prolonged extreme to exceptional drought across the Midwest and Great Plains this year has had major impacts along the Missouri River, notes Tapley. Falling water levels in the river and its reservoirs have forced the Army Corps of Engineers to reduce the flow, as levels in the reservoirs have fallen below federal regulations. Impacts from this decision are expected to be felt not only along the Missouri River, but more importantly, along the Mississippi River and resulting barge and shipment operations.

"Since the Missouri River is a major tributary of the Mississippi River, lessening the water flow could in turn threaten barge traffic along the Mississippi should water levels fall too low for transport," says Tapley, the agricultural meteorologist. The current water level of the Mississippi River at St Louis is -1.01 feet, or more than 31 feet below flood stage. This reading already falls within the 20 lowest all-time water levels on record. 

Little relief expected as next two weeks are forecast to remain drier than normal
Little relief is in store for the Missouri River region as forecasters predict the next two weeks to remain drier than average. "With little precipitation expected across the central U.S. over the next two weeks, water levels will continue to drop along the Mississippi River, nearing historic lows," says Tapley. In fact, the Mississippi River at St. Louis is currently forecast by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association to reach a water level of -5.10 feet on December 11, placing it at the fifth lowest water level on record, and less than one foot away from the all-time record set back in 1940.

The dropping water level is critical for barge operations and will continue to be monitored closely by the corps in coming days. "The Mississippi River at St. Louis is typically shut down to barge traffic when water drops below -5.00 feet, so there's a very real threat of significant disruptions in shipment of grain in the U.S.," adds Tapley.

Corps reviews its water-management plan periodically, to make balanced decisions
Reading about this situation is a reminder of the balance the Army Corps of Engineers has to keep in order to maintain water management of reservoirs and rivers across America. In the case of the Missouri River, the corps must respond to competing interests of states that rely on water stored in the reservoirs for irrigation, navigation and recreation. Meanwhile, the corps and the people it serves should not forget that those reservoirs were also built to protect against flooding.

The corps maintains that balance through a water-management plan, created with the input from affected stakeholders. Now is a good time for the corps to review its Missouri River management plan. Weather patterns are changing. We have record floods one year and record drought the next. Perhaps Congress will have to give the corps more flexibility to respond to rapidly shifting climate realities rather than forcing politicians to plead for relief every time the Missouri River unexpectedly floods or dries up.