A new year has started, but last year’s drought is still afflicting the United States. The latest map from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows nearly 73 percent of the contiguous U.S. is still in drought. Rain has slaked the thirst of parts of the Northeast and Southeast, but dry conditions expanded in other regions.

The southern Mississippi Valley recently received rainy relief as a belated Christmas present, but the northern stretches of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and their headwaters remained parched.

The retreating river may have a costly effect on American commerce. An important stretch of the Mississippi south of St. Louis, Mo. may soon be shut down to barge traffic. Most of the towboats that haul barges along the river need at least a 9-foot draft, the depth at which the ship’s hull and propeller sit in the water. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) latest weather and water forecast warned that the river may drop to only an 8-foot draft, rendering the waterway impassible to most towboats.

Earlier,the USACE had warned that the river could become unnavigable by January 15. However, efforts by the USACE to blast away rocks near Thebes, Il. (see image above) have successfully bought more time for barge shipping, according to a press release from the American Waterways Operators (AWO) and Waterways Council, Inc. (WCI) The river will now likely stay open through January.

After January, the future of Mississippi River traffic is still as murky as the river’s waters, and that makes planning difficult for river captains and shippers.

“If a barge has a 14-day transit time from loading to the low points on the river, barge operators and their customers must make plans based on the forecasted water depth at the time of the barge’s arrival at the bottleneck,” said Michael Toohey, WCI President & CEO in a press release. “That is why longer-term assurance that barges can reliably load to a 9-foot draft even beyond January is absolutely critical,”

The AWO, WCI and other concerned groups are urging the government to open upstream reservoirs to help keep the river open. However, government officials fear that releasing the water now could make managing the river more difficult later if the drought continues into 2013.

In January alone, the potential supply-chain disruption in states along the Mississippi River could affect more than 8,000 jobs, more than $54 million in wages and benefits, as well as 7.2 million tons of commodities valued at $2.8 billion, according to an analysis of economic data by the American Waterways Operators, Waterways Council, Inc.


U.S. Army Corps of Engineer vessels dredge chucnks of limestone from the Mississipi River. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineer, Wikimedia Commons)

U.S. Drought Monitor for first week of January 2013 (Richard Heim, NOAA/NESDIC/NCDC)