What it looks like as drought strangles the mighty Mississippi

Dredge Jadwin, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredging vessel, powers south down the Mississippi River on Oct. 19 past Commerce, Mo.
Dredge Jadwin, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredging vessel, powers south down the Mississippi River on Oct. 19 past Commerce, Mo. (Jeff Roberson/AP)
correction

This story misspelled the name of Clint Willson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Louisiana State University and director of its Center for River Studies. It is Willson, not Wilson. The story has been corrected.

PORTAGEVILLE, Mo. — Sandra Nelson crouched at a spot of riverbed that would normally be deep underwater, gathering rocks and jars of soil as souvenirs. Nearby, a man with a metal detector roamed the barren ground for treasures at twilight. A father carried his daughter on his shoulders to witness a sight not seen for generations.

“I had to see it in person,” Nelson, who lives 40 miles away in Sikeston, Mo., said Monday evening as she roamed the landscape that looked almost like desert. “You wouldn’t believe this is the Mississippi River.”

6-month diffference in

relative soil moisture

Less saturated

More saturated

-40%

0

+20%

+40%

-20%

Mississippi

River

Watershed

500 MILES

Detail below

St. Louis

Ohio R.

ILL.

MISSOURI

KY.

Navigable

waterway gages

at or below

low water

threshold

Cairo

TENN.

Miss. R.

Memphis

ARK.

MISS.

ALA.

Vicksburg

Red. R.

Mobile

LOUISIANA

TEX.

New Orleans

100 MILES

Soil moisture data provided by Jonathan Case of ENSCO,

Inc. and the NASA SPoRT Center

6-month difference in relative soil moisture

Less saturated

More saturated

-40%

0

+20%

+40%

-20%

Mississippi

River

Watershed

500 MILES

Detail below

St. Louis

Ohio R.

ILL.

MISSOURI

KY.

Navigable

waterway gages

at or below

low water

threshold

Cairo

TENN.

Miss. R.

Memphis

ARK.

MISS.

ALA.

Vicksburg

Red. R.

Mobile

TEXAS

LOUISIANA

Houston

New Orleans

100 MILES

Soil moisture data provided by Jonathan Case of ENSCO, Inc.

and the NASA SPoRT Center

6-month difference in relative soil moisture

Less saturated

More saturated

-40%

-30

0

10

20

30

40%

-20

-10

Seattle

Helena

Portland

MISSISSIPPI

St. Paul

RIVER

Chicago

New York

WATERSHED

Denver

St. Louis

Ohio

Navigable waterway

gages at or below

low water threshold

Cairo

Los

Angeles

Memphis

Atlanta

Atlantic

Ocean

Dallas

Vicksburg

New Orleans

300 MILES

Pacific

Ocean

Houston

Tampa

Soil moisture data provided by Jonathan

Case of ENSCO, Inc. and the NASA SPoRT Center

Gulf of Mexico

6-month difference in relative soil moisture

Less saturated

More saturated

-40%

-30

0

10

20

30

40%

-20

-10

Seattle

Helena

Portland

MISSISSIPPI

Boston

St. Paul

RIVER

Chicago

New York

Sacramento

WATERSHED

Denver

St. Louis

Ohio

Navigable waterway

gages at or below

low water threshold

Cairo

Los

Angeles

Memphis

Atlanta

Atlantic

Ocean

Dallas

Vicksburg

New Orleans

Pacific

Ocean

300 MILES

Houston

Tampa

Soil moisture data provided by Jonathan

Case of ENSCO, Inc. and the NASA SPoRT Center

Gulf of Mexico

6-month difference in relative soil moisture

Less saturated

More saturated

-40%

-30

0

10

20

30

40%

-20

-10

Seattle

Portland

Helena

MISSISSIPPI

Boston

St. Paul

RIVER

New York

Chicago

Salt Lake

City

WATERSHED

Denver

Navigable waterway

gages at or below

low water threshold

Ohio

St. Louis

Cairo

Los Angeles

Memphis

Atlanta

Atlantic

Ocean

Vicksburg

Dallas

Red

300 MILES

New Orleans

Houston

Pacific

Ocean

Tampa

Gulf of Mexico

Soil moisture data provided by Jonathan

Case of ENSCO, Inc. and the NASA SPoRT Center

The nation’s mightiest, most mythic waterway has been strangled by months of dry conditions, which have sent water levels plummeting to historic lows. For weeks now, that slow-moving crisis has made it difficult, if not impossible, to move barges down a river that serves as a highway for about 60 percent of the nation’s foreign-bound corn and soybeans.

The result is a season of uncertainty for many up and down the river who depend on it for their livelihoods, from farmers growing crops to the tugboat pilots who steer barges toward the Gulf of Mexico and back. The deep worries over the crippled supply chain have mingled with the sheer curiosity of people who have flocked to the banks of the Mississippi to marvel at a sight few can ever recall.

Aerial images and meteorological data help to illustrate how dire the situation has become: Sandbars line a narrowing river channel, the result of scant precipitation and parched soils across the Missouri River Valley to the west and the Ohio River Basin to the east.

Historically, the winding river was marked by a wide flood plain that would swell during wetter years, while drier years would leave pools and deeper spots throughout the waterway, said Olivia Dorothy, upper Mississippi basin director for the advocacy group American Rivers.

But the river has since been altered by dams, levees and other structures, and engineered to maintain a central channel that carries barge traffic that is key to commerce along the Mississippi. But the river has become so dry, that central channel is about all that is flowing in some places these days.

The Mississippi River suffered historically low water levels in October 2022 due largely to volatile weather cycles caused by climate change. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)

Levels have sunk so low that many boat ramps don’t stretch down far enough to reach the water. Docks that usually float with ease sit tilted and grounded on riverbanks. Stretches of the river have transformed into a marvel of drought, attracting onlookers to spots such as a dead-end road outside Portageville.

Jarrod Tipton brought his son, Jaxson, to bear witness in his Spider-Man pajamas.

“He’s 7, and I told him we need to get over here because he’d probably never see anything like this again in his life,” Tipton said. “You can almost walk to Tennessee,” he said, gazing across the only sliver of water that remained between him and the far bank.

It’s one of many spots onlookers have flocked to. Low water levels have exposed a century-old shipwreck and made it easy for visitors to reach Tower Rock, a prominent rock formation south of St. Louis that’s normally an island, on foot.

At the Memphis Yacht Club, where dozens of boats sit atop the mud, general manager Joe Weiss has so much free time on his hands, he finds himself hauling out an array of long-forgotten items the drought has revealed on the river floor: grills, umbrellas, tables, chairs, a fire extinguisher, and on and on. “My daughter found a pair of Ray-Bans,” he said.

In this part of the country, rising waters are usually a bigger concern — the last major floods hit in 2019, while just this summer, deadly flash flooding hit nearby parts of Missouri and Kentucky. But now it faces an ominously dry long-term forecast.

The only cure? Rain. And not just rain where the Mississippi is low right now, but also farther north, in the tributaries upon which it relies.

“When we get to worrying about the river, we always look north to Kentucky, where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers come together,” said Will Maples, an agricultural economist at Mississippi State University.

NORTH

ILLINOIS

Ohio R.

Mounds

KENTUCKY

River gage at

low water levels

Blandville

Wickliffe

Benton

MISSOURI

Bardwell

Wyatt

KENTUCKY

Arlington

2.7 feet below

low stage

KY.

RAILROAD

Columbus

Ohio R.

Cairo

Parked

barges

KY.

ILLINOIS

Hickman

MISSOURI

KY.

KENTUCKY

5 MILES

TENNESSEE

New Madrid

2.3 feet below

low stage

Catron

Howardville

KY.

Marston

Risco

Samburg

6.1 feet below

low stage

Tallapoosa

Hornbeak

Tiptonville

Portageville

Ridgely

Wardell

7.3 feet below

low stage

Hayti

Caruthersville

Dyersburg

MISSOURI

TENNESSEE

Steele

MISSOURI

TENN.

ARKANSAS

Ripley

ARK.

Henning

Luxora

Osceola

Covington

9.9 feet below

low stage

Etowah

Gilt Edge

TENN.

Brighton

Wilson

TENN.

Dyess

Atoka

Bassett

Joiner

TENN.

Millington

Turrell

Bartlett

TENN.

Clarkedale

ARKANSAS

Memphis

Marion

Earle

14.3 feet below

low stage

West

Memphis

Jennette

TENNESSEE

Edmondson

MISSISSIPPI

Horn Lake

Anthonyville

Walls

Hernando

Hughes

Exposed

sandbars

MISS.

9.5 feet below

low stage

ARK.

River width at

this bend is

approximately

1,190 feet

Lexa

Helena

6.0 feet below

low stage

Lula

Darling

ARKANSAS

Coahoma

Jonestown

Marks

Friars

Point

Lake View

Lambert

MISSISSIPPI

Farrell

Elaine

5 MILES

Clarksdale

ILLINOIS

KENTUCKY

Mounds

2.7 feet below

low stage

Wickliffe

Cairo

NORTH

Wyatt

10 MILES

MISSOURI

2.3 feet below

low stage

Hickman

KENTUCKY

TENNESSEE

New Madrid

6.1 feet below

low stage

Tiptonville

Portageville

MISSOURI

Hayti

7.3 feet below

low stage

MISSOURI

TENNESSEE

ARKANSAS

Blytheville

Ripley

Henning

Luxora

Osceola

9.9 feet below

low stage

Bassett

Turrell

ARKANSAS

Memphis

Marion

14.3 feet below

low stage

West

Memphis

TENNESSEE

Edmondson

MISSISSIPPI

Walls

Hernando

Hughes

MISSISSIPPI

9.5 feet below

low stage

6.0 feet below

low stage

Lexa

Lula

Darling

ARKANSAS

Jonestown

Marks

Friars

Point

MISSISSIPPI

10 MILES

Clarksdale

ILLINOIS

NORTH

Mounds

KY.

Cairo

2.7 feet below

low stage

Columbus

MISSOURI

2.3 feet below

low stage

Hickman

KENTUCKY

New Madrid

TENNESSEE

6.1 feet below

low stage

Tiptonville

Portageville

10 MILES

Hayti

7.3 feet below

low stage

TENN.

MISSOURI

ARKANSAS

Blytheville

Luxora

Osceola

Covington

9.9 feet below

low stage

Bassett

Millington

Turrell

ARKANSAS

14.3 feet below

low stage

Memphis

West

Memphis

TENNESSEE

MISSISSIPPI

Walls

Hernando

Hughes

MISSISSIPPI

9.5 feet below

low stage

6.0 feet below

low stage

Lexa

Lula

ARKANSAS

Jonestown

Friars

Point

MISSISSIPPI

Clarksdale

10 MILES

Some short-term relief arrived Tuesday as storms brought more than an inch of precipitation to rain-starved parts of the Mississippi basin. But while the rainfall was heavy for a while on the starved river, it didn’t last long.

In its outlook for the coming winter, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists said they expect drought conditions to worsen in the lower Mississippi Valley, with the climate pattern known as La Niña expected to bring dry conditions to the southern tier of the United States.

“Right now there’s no end in sight,” said Lisa Parker, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Valley Division of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Taming the mighty Mississippi

The Army Corps regularly dredges the river bottom to maintain a channel that is at least nine feet deep, enough to float towboats and the barges they push. The riverbanks are also dotted with structures that extend from the banks toward the center of the river, designed to send water flowing toward the channel and create currents that help maintain its depth.

The Corps has had five vessels out on the river in recent weeks to conduct emergency dredging, needed when barges get stuck and the channel becomes impassable, Parker said. Each time, the river channel is closed for at least 12 to 24 hours, further disrupting already slow barge traffic. Tuesday’s brief rain helped increase river flows throughout the lower Mississippi basin, Parker said.

Historic droughts in the Mississippi River region in October 2022 dried up much of the river, revealing vast portions of land and threatening wildlife. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)

Other man-made infrastructure on the river, such as levees that Dorothy estimates line more than 90 percent of the river south of St. Louis, is designed to keep floodwaters away from farmland, roads and ports.

The drought is “showing us the other extreme,” said Clint Willson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Louisiana State University and director of its Center for River Studies.

“We’ve engineered it to promote this navigation and enable the commerce and the trade and reduce the risk for communities and ports. But at the end of the day, it’s still Mother Nature who is supplying the water.”

Daniel Wolfe contributed to this report. ESA Sentinel-2 imagery for Oct. 17 was used. Oct. 25 gage data was obtained via the U.S. Geological Survey. Soil moisture data was provided by Jonathan Case of ENSCO Inc. and the NASA SPoRT Center.

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