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Dec 6, 2012 | 11:34 GMT

11 mins read

U.S.: Water Supply Issues Along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers

U.S.: Water Supply Issues Along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers

What is good for the Missouri River is not always what is best for the Mississippi River, and the current drought affecting most of the U.S. Midwest is bringing that fact to the forefront. The water shortage has created tensions between water demand in the Missouri River basin and transport demand on the Mississippi River.

Mississippi River barge operators and shipping groups asked U.S. President Barack Obama and the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Nov. 27 to declare a state of emergency on the Mississippi River. The low river levels are thought to be caused by the drought and the congressionally directed project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reduce the flow of the Missouri River. Numerous government representatives made similar requests throughout November. Representatives from Missouri River basin states have said increasing the flow of the Missouri is unlawful and have submitted an opposing request to deny the declaration of a state of emergency.

Several recent news reports have emphasized that the combination of drought and the reduction in the flow of the Missouri River, a tributary of the Mississippi, eventually could be a detriment to industries that use the Mississippi River for transport, such as the agriculture industry. The effects could reach international markets, influencing prices or delaying exports.

The Missouri and Mississippi rivers are managed by different offices and separate plans. Water users in the Missouri River basin want to keep supplies available for drinking, irrigation, agriculture, industrial purposes and power production, while industries along the Mississippi would benefit from greater flow from the Missouri to help ensure that the trade and transport vital to the region's economy continue without incident. Transport demand is more elastic than water demand, since other modes of transportation such as road and rail are available, but typically, there are no alternatives to an area's water supply. Moreover, increasing the flow of the Missouri will not necessarily fix the Mississippi's shipping problem entirely, since drought continues along both rivers.

The United States' success as a nation is due in part to an inherent geographical advantage: a large network of navigable waterways at its core, combined with a large swath of farmland. Currently, this farmland — along with much of the country — is suffering its worst drought in more than 50 years. This drought has reduced corn production in the United States significantly and has been linked to higher global food prices

The lack of rain is also affecting U.S. waterways; the Mississippi River level is falling at the key point of St. Louis, Missouri, and is expected to continue falling in coming weeks. Future restrictions and closures along the river are possible, since the regulation of the flow of the Missouri River into the Mississippi — which began Nov. 23 — is slated for completion by Dec. 11, at which time the flow will be reduced by more than two-thirds. Without intervention or significant rainfall, delays and closures for shipping along the Mississippi could continue for months, though snowmelt from the northern states could increase water levels.

Conditions Along the Mississippi

The current area of concern where navigation could become problematic if river levels continue falling as predicted is an approximately 310-kilometer (190-mile) stretch of the Mississippi between St. Louis, Missouri, and Cairo, Illinois. Although drought is affecting water levels along the Mississippi, the lower levels along this stretch could be exacerbated by the reduction of flow from the Missouri River.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Weather Service records river levels as stages that indicate the level of the water compared to a predetermined depth of a river, marked as 0 feet. At 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 5, the Mississippi River at St. Louis was at -1.45 feet. The Corps of Engineers, which manages the river, cites -3.5 feet as the low-water reference plane that aids in determining safe levels of navigation. A channel 9 feet deep and 300 feet wide is required for navigation between Saverton, Missouri, (north of St. Louis) and Cairo.

The low-water action plan in place, which outlines the response to low-water conditions states that when the St. Louis gauge reads -2 feet, navigation precautions should be taken because rock formations (or pinnacles) near Thebes will become hazardous for shipping. According to the plan, -5 feet is the lowest stage for minimum navigation. Possible restrictions at this point would include towing restrictions, limiting traffic to one-way and allowing operations only during daylight. The Corps of Engineers' extended forecast for December through February for this section of the Mississippi predicts a low water level of between -6.5 and -7 feet — well below the level for minimum navigation. The National Weather Service predicts the river could reach -6 feet at St. Louis on Dec. 31.

Of particular concern along the stretch of the Mississippi between St. Louis and Cairo are the pinnacles between Thebes and Grand Tower, Illinois. These rocks can create problems for barge traffic up and down the Mississippi River and, coupled with drought and the reduced flow from the Missouri River, have become a larger obstacle to transportation. A number of these rock formations are due for removal in upcoming months, but government representatives met with top Corps of Engineers officials Nov. 29 to discuss speeding up the timeline because navigation through this area has become increasingly difficult.

The corps appears to be flexible with the project's timetable within the limits of the project's technical requirements, which include choosing a proposal that is safe, efficient and affects navigation as little as possible. Reportedly, some blasting will begin Jan. 3. Until the rock formations are removed, especially given the current drought conditions, they could still slow or altogether stall transport along that stretch of the river.

Northern portions of the Mississippi River close seasonally, since freezing conditions can prevent navigation. The navigation season for this year on the Upper Mississippi River ended Dec. 3. Although there have been instances of the river freezing at St. Louis, traffic at the nearest lock — a device that aids in navigability by first sequestering and then raising or lowering a vessel as necessary — continues year-round. There is a planned closure for Lock 27, the lock closest to St. Louis, for maintenance from Dec. 10 through March 1, 2013, which could add to short delays at this section of the river, but traffic will still be allowed to pass through the auxiliary chamber.

Because of the drought and reduced water flow, formal shipping restrictions beyond the seasonal closures could begin in December, although transporters have already begun reducing barge shipments to reduce drafts (the depths of vessels in water) for safety. Snowmelt could increase water levels, but probably not until March.

The Economic Effects of Reduced Transport

Goods from many sectors of the U.S. economy move along the Mississippi river and other inland waterways. But certain industries rely more heavily on water transport than others. Approximately 60 percent of U.S. grain exports travel on the Mississippi River system, as does 20 percent of the U.S. coal used domestically for electricity and 22 percent of domestic petroleum goods. In all, about $180 billion worth of goods move up and down the river on barges annually.

In the main section of concern along the Mississippi (between St. Louis and Cairo), grains and oilseeds dominate the southbound traffic, accounting for roughly half of the nearly 80 million metric tons of cargo (22 percent of which is coal) moving southward through this section of the river. Twenty percent of the northbound traffic is coal, 21 percent is from the fertilizer sector, 12 percent is chemicals and 7 percent is cargo from the iron and steel industry.

Possible extended closures and restrictions on transport on the Mississippi River in December and January could result in an estimated $7 billion in direct losses. This includes $2.3 billion worth of agricultural products as well as the need to import additional crude oil at the cost of $545 million.

Missouri and Mississippi River Basins

Mississippi and Missouri River Basins

While most of the grain produced in the United States is consumed domestically and transported over land, the United States is also a significant global exporter, and most U.S. grain exports travel by barge. The prevention or restriction of the movement of grain along the Mississippi could delay deliveries. Even without a delay, an increase in the price of grain is likely because the drought decreased the U.S. harvest below projected levels and many countries have already dipped into their reserves. This could hurt nations that import a significant amount of grain from the United States, including Japan, South Korea, China and Egypt.

The seasonality of grain transport is also a factor. The movement of grain through Lock 27 begins increasing in late September and does not begin to decrease until mid-December, eventually reaching a low point in late January. Given this, the greatest effects of restrictions on agriculture shipments between December and February would occur in the earlier portion of the timeframe.

Mississippi Grain Barge Movements

Mississippi Grain Barge Movements

Cost of Alternative Transportation

River closures or load restrictions would not necessarily have to halt all movement of goods that once traveled on the water to have an economic impact. Alternative methods of transportation, such as rail or truck, are available. But water transportation is the least expensive mode of long-distance transport for freight, with operating costs of roughly $0.02 per ton per mile compared to under $0.04 per ton per mile for rail and slightly less than $0.18 per ton per mile for truck.

While significant rainfall could alleviate the low water levels in the Mississippi, the uncertainty of the weather and the ongoing drought could force cargo to shift from waterway transport to other modes such as road or rail. This shift is already evident; rail traffic has increased 16 percent year on year for the week ending Nov. 14, while southbound barge traffic decreased 29 percent and northbound barge traffic dropped approximately 9 percent from the same time last year. The drought of 1988, similar to the one occurring now, is estimated to have cost barge transporters $1 billion due to various lane closures on the Mississippi (including extended closures, some of which lasted longer than three weeks). 

Management of the Missouri River

A delay or alteration of the water management plan on the Missouri River could prevent water levels from falling further along the Mississippi between St. Louis and Cairo. However, the Corps of Engineers is managing the water flow of the Missouri according to a yearly master plan approved by Congress.

The management plan for the Missouri River is established for the benefit of the Missouri River basin and includes flood control measures and plans to maintain supplies for navigation, irrigation, power, water supply, water quality control, recreation, fish and wildlife. The Missouri is also a source of water for hydraulic fracturing operations at the Bakken play, an oil-rich shale play in the northern portion of the basin. The Missouri River basin passes through some of the United States' key agriculture states whose main products include corn, wheat and soybeans. While this year's corn and soybean harvests are nearly finished, wheat is still being planted and is only just now sprouting. Due to the drought, corn and soybean yields were lower than expected this year, and wheat crops in the region are sprouting behind schedule.  The ongoing drought also has led to an increased demand for irrigation water.

The restoration of the full flow of the Missouri into the Mississippi would require either approval from Congress or a state of emergency decree by Obama. This would help to begin raising the levels of the Mississippi River south of the confluence, although the actual effects would not be seen immediately.

In response to requests for a state of emergency declaration along the Mississippi, 15 government officials from Missouri River basin states sent a letter to Obama. The letter stated that the Corps of Engineers is responsible for managing aspects of the Missouri River and that the request to increase releases from the river is unlawful and would harm states already suffering from drought.

Likely Results Along the Mississippi

Lawmakers met with Jo-Ellen Darcy, the U.S. Army's assistant secretary to civil works, and appear optimistic about the possibility of expediting the process to increase water levels of the Mississippi. But the Corps of Engineers continues to manage the Missouri River as originally directed by Congress and will likely continue unless instructed differently. 

Predicting the extent of closures and restrictions to the Mississippi River without government action would require predicting the weather, and enough rain could render the entire debate moot. However, extended forecasts indicate that water levels could remain low for the next few months, which means that increased restrictions and closures are likely.

Sectors including agriculture, mining and fertilizer will feel the greatest effects because of their greater dependence on river transport. Either governmental action or the use of alternative transportation can prevent or ameliorate some of the expected economic effects of a potential closure of the Mississippi, although a directive to restore the full flow of the Missouri could harm the economy in the Missouri River basin. At this point, it could be too late to avoid all the potential problems created by the dropping water levels in the Mississippi River.

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