Mississippi River Water Levels Continue to Drop, Setting New Records

Mississippi River barge tow
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Published Oct 20, 2022 10:36 PM by The Maritime Executive

Water levels on the drought-stricken Lower Mississippi continue to drop, setting new low-water records and reducing commercial barge freight capacity in the process.

The water level at Memphis hit a new all-time low of -10.7 feet this week, leaving recreational boats high and dry in the mud at a popular marina. At Cairo, the water level is nearly down to the last record set in 1901. In St. Louis, the landmark Tower Rock - an island in the middle of the river - can be reached on foot for the first time since 1988. And all sorts of secrets are popping up in the dry riverbed, including a long-submerged shipwreck in Baton Rouge. 

The Tennessee Valley Authority is planning to release more water from two dams - the Kentucky Dam on the Tennessee River and the Barkley Dam on the Cumberland River - in an attempt to improve flow on the Ohio River, which has also been affected by drought. This will help aid navigation around Paducah, Kentucky, some 40 miles upstream from Cairo, but a TVA spokesman told local media in Memphis that it is unlikely to have much of an effect on the Lower Mississippi.

The outlook for the coming months does not look favorable for barge operations, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Prediction Center. The center's winter long-range forecast predicts continued drought conditions in the Mississippi's massive drainage area, which covers about 40 percent of the United States. A La Nina climate pattern is driving dry conditions throughout the western and central regions of the U.S., and relief may not come until the end of the winter.  

"Currently, what we've seen upstream across the Mississippi and Upper Mississippi River Valleys is there's no beneficial rain that will come in the near future to level out the river," said NWS meteorologist Allan Payne, speaking to Vicksburg's Clarion Ledger.