Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

The Compleat Wetlander: The drought of 2012: An ongoing catastrophe along the Mississippi River

No one ever anticipated that the Mississippi River would run out of water.  It hasn’t, but water levels continue to drop.  While the eyes of the nation are focused on the devastation left by Hurricane Sandy, another crises— the drought in the Midwest that began in the summer of 2012—continues.  It is expected to last at least into early 2013.

I had forgotten about the drought until my sister, a teacher at a community college in southern Illinois, told me this week that many of her students would not be coming to class if the schools were shut down in Cairo again.  The water levels in the Mississippi may drop below the water intake for the community’s drinking water supply.  No water; no school.  Parents stay home.

Drinking water is one problem. Barge traffic is another.  Crops such as soy beans, corn and other products including coal and petroleum are reliant on barge transport on the Mississippi during the winter months. If water levels continue to drop, then the stretch of river from confluence of the Missouri River in St. Louis to the confluence of the Ohio River below Cairo is likely to cease.

Normally the Missouri River provides 40-60% of the water volume on this stretch of the Mississippi.  Right now dam releases from high up in the Missouri River are maintaining flows. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operating manual requires the flow to be reduced this time of year. After eight months of below normal run-off water levels in the reservoirs are low as well.   The planned reduction in water flow is likely to stop barge traffic. Deviating from the prescribed operation manual will require the intervention of the Administration or Congress.

Crops are suffering, too.  The winter wheat growing season, which began in October is already affected with no immediate end to the drought in sight according to NOAA’s most recent state of the drought report.  According to the report 49% of the contiguous U.S.was  experiencing  moderate to extreme drought at the end of October.

And that’s just what is happening now.  The Mississippi will rise and flood again.  These extreme wet and dry cycles are not good for some earthen clay levees, which may be subject to levee desiccation and future failure. The drought may have predicted and unpredicted long-term consequences.

For almost 200 years management plans for the Mississippi River have been focused primarily on supporting navigation and preventing flooding.  The federal government has invested millions dredging the Mississippi and installing an elaborate lock and dam system for commerce.  Communities have built levees for protection against high water along hundreds of miles along the river.  In the lands that drain to the Mississippi, millions of acres of wetlands have been drained and converted to agriculture. Today farmers continued to invest in improving drainage to get the land dry enough to plan a crop early in the year. The top priority for virtually everyone has been to get water off the land and down the river as quickly as possible.

There has been low water before.   The record is 1940 when the river dropped to minus 6.1 feet at St. Louis in January.  On November 26, 2012 the river was at minus-1.49 feet and it is expected to drop to minus-5 or minus-6 feet by mid-December if the weather doesn’t change and the Corps follows the operation plan for the Missouri.

If 2012 is the beginning of a series of dry years like the drought that occurred during the dust bowl years of the 1930s, then the strategy of getting water off the land and down river is not a good one.  I am left with a number of questions that should be considered in developing a response to future drought.

Does the larger strategy of moving water downstream quickly and efficiently leave farmers and communities vulnerable and intensify the drought?

What has decades of drainage done to groundwater levels?  During dry times of the year, groundwater becomes an important source of flow in river systems.

Where does local rainfall come from? Does the loss of wetlands also remove local sources of precipitation through evapotranspiration from the landscape?

What are the combined impacts of all these changes?  Are there different future actions that can be taken to adapt to alternating periods of flood and drought?

This month many people watched the new film by Ken Burns, The Dust Bowl on public television. .  There have been a number of articles addressing the question of whether this year’s drought could be an indication that there will be a return to those times and many writers conclude that conservation practices and safety nets will prevent this from happening again.  I don’t disagree, but I am deeply concerned about what might happen instead.

For more information see:

Ag Groups: Boost Mississippi River Flow

Mississippi River Reaches Historic Lows: ‘We Have 50-Year Guys Who’ve Never Seen Anything Like This Before’

Drought-Parched Mississippi River is Halting Barges (includes 1940 low water level)

Great U.S. Drought of 2012 to Last Into Spring of 2013

Are we headed toward another dust bowl?

Dusty Books and Hard Times

Regional Climate Maps USA

U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook

Advanced Hydrologic prediction service: dropping water levels

This entry was posted in agriculture, drought, flooding, floodplains, natural hazards, wetland restoration, wetlands and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *