After a scorching summer and prolonged drought, the Mississippi River at Memphis has hit an unprecedented low for the second year in a row. The drop, which reached a record low of minus 11.5 feet on Wednesday, has disrupted barge traffic and allowed saltwater intrusion into the Mississippi River in Louisiana, threatening the drinking water of thousands. This year’s record surpasses the previous low of minus 10.81 feet set last October.
Remarkably low water levels have led to unusual access to Tower Rock, a rock formation normally accessible only by boat. Other records were set along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, with Cairo, Illinois, at 4.5 feet, and New Madrid and Caruthersville, Missouri, at minus 6.4 feet and minus 2.6 feet, respectively. Since mid-September, gauges along a nearly 400-mile stretch of the Mississippi River have consistently recorded levels at or below the low-water mark.
The historic lows are the result of an exceptional drought, rated the worst by the U.S. Drought Monitor, affecting parts of the South and Midwest, including Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. This drought has become the 24th weather disaster of the year, costing at least $1 billion, according to NOAA.
The impact on barge traffic during the crucial harvest period for staple crops such as soybeans, corn and wheat is a concern. Low water conditions are expected to persist despite recent heavy rains in the upper Mississippi River basin and lighter rains in the Ohio River Valley.
Efforts to mitigate the effects of low water levels include the expansion of an underwater levee in Louisiana by the Army Corps of Engineers to slow the advance of saltwater. However, the threat to water treatment systems in New Orleans and surrounding areas remains, prompting the construction of pipeline systems to bring freshwater into intakes.
While this week’s rain will provide some relief, it won’t fully restore average river flows or push the saltwater wedge back into the Gulf of Mexico. A more substantial recovery is expected in November, with high water levels expected from December through May.
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