Drought blocks Mississippi, mainstay of the US economy

Will drought paralyze river transport in the United States? The Mississippi, the country’s main artery, is approaching its lowest level ever. Boat traffic, already greatly slowed down, could become purely and simply impossible in the coming weeks, warns a group of senators, elected officials in the House of Representatives and industrial officials, who urge Barack Obama to declare the state of emergency to unlock solutions.

The United States experienced its worst drought in half a century this summer, with dramatic consequences for agriculture. Today the whole economy is weakened. From northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, the wide Mississippi crosses the country for 4,000 kilometers. It is through its waters that about 60% of national exports of cereals, 22% of oil and 20% of coal are transported. If nothing is done, the river risks being unfit for navigation on certain portions from December 10. However, goods worth a total of $ 7 billion pass through the river between December and January.

The shipowners began to lighten the loading of the boats to adapt to the declining seaworthiness of the river – a costly reduction in capacity. And shippers are looking for alternative means of transport: rail and road carriers are seeing their order books soar. A complicated report: “If you have to ferry raw materials from Ohio to a blast furnace in Chicago, you’re trying to see if you can go to Louisville, Ky., Unload it from the ship, and ship it by train to there. ‘steelworks “says Marty Hettel, sales manager for AEP River Operations in Ohio.

“THE BITE OF THE ICE”

The water shortage is likely to last, worsening tensions over the sharing of a resource that has become scarce. December and January are traditionally the months with the lowest river level, with autumn generally being dry and frosts starting in the north. “This moment is called the bite of the ice: the water begins to turn into ice and can no longer flow downstream”says Steve Buan, a hydrologist at the US Center for Central and Northern Rivers Forecasting.

Under these conditions, the Corps of Engineers of the American Army, responsible for the management of river infrastructures, concentrates the anger of the economic world. Its engineers began, on November 23, to reduce the flow of the Missouri, which empties into the Mississippi at the height of the city of Saint Louis. Their objective: to ensure sufficient quantities of water for the regions situated upstream. “Rivers have different uses: supplying water to the population, hydroelectricity”, explains Michael Petersen, spokesperson for the Corps of Engineers of the Army in Saint Louis, for whom the current plan is being followed with “long term considerations in mind”.

The argument does not convince the economic players for whom the Mississippi is a vital axis. “We still have a lot to take down the Mississippi before winter sets in completely.”says Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa. “They can release more water, of course they can.”

“RISK THOUSANDS OF JOBS”

In a letter to the Corps of Engineers, fifteen senators and sixty-two members of the House of Representatives warn of the danger of “to cut the country’s river highway, jeopardize strategic freight for domestic consumption and export, threaten manufacturing industries and the power supply, and risk thousands of jobs in the Midwest.”.

In response to this pressure, the Corps began to release more water from two other tributaries of the Mississippi, the Minnesota and Iowa rivers. Without preventing the level of the river from falling dangerously. If the White House declared a state of emergency, the Corps could be forced to increase the flow of Missouri. It could also initiate, without going through federal tendering procedures, work to destroy submerged rocks that complicate navigation on the Mississippi in times of low water.

So many debates that could force the United States to rethink part of its economic infrastructure, while episodes of drought are set to multiply under the effect of climate change.