Drought Impacts Commerce on the Mississippi River

The ongoing drought of 2012 is delivering a serious economic blow to America’s agricultural heartland.  Its impact, however, is not limited to food prices.  The lack of rain in the central United States is also affecting one of this nation’s vital shipping arteries – the Mississippi River.

Thousands of tons of cargo – from fertilizer to coal – travel along the mighty Mississippi everyday.  The exact number of barges allowed to safely navigate the river at one time is determined by its water level.  The wider and deeper the river, the more barges can travel. As the river shrinks, so to does its capacity to transport goods and materials.

River levels typically fall off in the summer, but this year’s drought has pushed them well below normal.  For months now, barges have been carrying reduced loads in an effort to ride higher in the water and avoid running aground.  Without significant rain to replenish the river’s flow, conditions on the Mississippi have been getting worse.  In fact, the U.S. Coast Guard reported yesterday that it temporarily closed an eleven-mile stretch of the river near Greensville, MS, because of precariously low water levels.  As a result, nearly 100 vessels were stranded.

These drought induced reductions and delays in shipping – just like this year’s diminished farm yields – will ultimately translate to higher costs for consumers.