Along a withered Mississippi, a mixture of frustration, hope and awe

A Post reporter drove more than 400 miles along the drought-stricken Mississippi River. Here’s what he found.

Visitors swarm around Tower Rock — which is usually isolated by the waters of the Mississippi River — near Brazeau Township, Mo., on Oct. 23. (Tannen Maury/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Over several days this past week, Washington Post climate reporter Brady Dennis drove more than 400 miles in five states, from Memphis to Cairo, Ill., talking with people whose lives and livelihoods are inextricably linked to the Mississippi River and with people who had come to marvel at how drastically the ongoing drought has weakened it.

Historically low water levels have caused far-reaching concerns over yet another rupture in the international supply chain and what that could mean overseas and for typical Americans. The Mississippi, after all, is the nation’s aquatic superhighway, carrying roughly 60 percent of the nation’s corn and soybean exports south, and critical supplies such as fertilizer and fuel back north.

What it looks like as drought strangles the mighty Mississippi

But along the Mississippi, the worries these days are more visceral and immediate.

A scorching summer has given way to a dusty and disquieting fall for those who depend on the river, with few signs of relief in sight. Drive through communities that line its banks, and you will encounter a mixture of faith, frustration, anxiety and acceptance — along with agreement that few can remember a time when the mighty river has been so weakened.

Here are some of their stories:

Finley, Tenn. — ‘A blessing and a curse’

Jeremiah Hollingsworth climbed down from the massive combine that had been rumbling across his family’s 4,200 acres, harvesting soybeans on yet another bone-dry fall day.

He stood on the land his father and grandfather had farmed, steps from the earthen levee that overlooks the Mississippi. He’d seen the river’s waters swell many times, including in 2011, when the river inundated the farm and flooded an equipment garage and multiple family homes.

But now, a shrunken, drought-stricken river was forcing hard choices. Prices for his crops had fallen as the cost to transport them spiked. Local grain elevators had run out of capacity as they competed for space on the few barges headed south.

“It’s halting our progress drastically,” he said.

For the first time, Hollingsworth had decided to store tens of thousands of bushels of beans in plastic containers. He would sell them weeks from now when, he hoped, he could get a better price and barges could again reliably navigate to New Orleans.

Waiting was risky, but then life along these banks always has been. Those who depend on it long ago learned to take the good with the bad, to have faith that better days lie ahead.

“The river is a blessing and a curse,” said Hollingsworth, 45. “Every year has got its differences.”

Wickliffe, Ky. — ‘I can handle a flood’

Down a long and winding dirt road sits a concrete boat ramp stretching 200 feet down an embankment. It doesn’t look like much, but it’s an awfully important spot to Larry Barnes.

For decades, he and his employees at Barnes Marine Services have delivered groceries and other supplies to the barge crews traversing the river. These days, that job is proving more daunting than ever.

Over a 120-mile stretch of parched river, this is the one remaining boat access ramp from where he can reliably launch a 24-foot boat full of supplies. The other ramps that dot the banks are no longer long enough to reach the shrunken river.

“The water isn’t even up on them,” he said. “It’s making it tougher to do what we do.”

Barnes figures his business has fallen off about 15 percent over the past month as river traffic has stalled and dredging operations have closed the river in numerous places, leaving barges backed up with nowhere to go.

Like so many others, Barnes has carried on through his share of river flooding. He also remembers past droughts, in 1980, 1988 and 2012. This bout is as rough as any he can recall.

“I can handle a flood better than I can handle a drought. I think everyone on the river will tell you that,” he said. “It’s at a standstill right now.”

But experience tells him that this scourge will pass.

“It’ll come and go,” Barnes said. “You keep plugging along. And have faith. And just pray that it’ll start raining.”

Osceola, Ark. — ‘$50 million is sitting here’

In the fall, the heartland’s economic engine is on full display along roads up and down the river, where flat, fertile land stretches toward the horizon. Mile after mile, against the backdrop of changing leaves, farmers are harvesting endless rows of golden soybeans and corn, their tractors enveloped by clouds of dust rising from the thirsty soil.

Massive trucks loaded with grains rumble along narrow country roads, heading toward the river and the grain elevators that purchase crops and send them south toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Only when you reach the river’s edge, at places like Poinsett Rice & Grain’s loading facility, do the immediate impacts of the drought become startling and unmistakable.

“Probably close to $50 million is sitting here,” said Jeff Worsham, the port’s manager, as he stood high on a loading dock, looking out over the roughly 75 barges stranded in this small offshoot of the Mississippi.

Below, trucks heavy with soybeans from nearby farms continued to pull into the grain elevator complex. But Worsham has only so much room left to put the crops he buys from farmers these days.

With restrictions on how many barges can travel on the river at a time, as well as limits on how heavily each can be loaded, the logjam isn’t likely to ease anytime soon. And higher transportation costs are sure to cut into his bottom line.

Worsham’s quandary in this one corner of the Mississippi is a microcosm of the struggle playing out again and again these days.

“I’ve been here 20 years, and we’ve never had this issue,” Worsham said. “Normally, high water is what causes us pain.”

Two of the facility’s loading docks were out of commission on this day, the water too low for loading barges. Nearby, Worsham pointed to massive plastic grain bags, each stuffed with about 30,000 bushels — or about 30 truck loads — of soybeans. He can store the crops there for a while, but each day they sit brings more risk.

“It’s the first time we’ve ever done that,” he said.

Worsham hopes it’s that last time, but he isn’t so sure. The river seems to experience more violent fluctuations now than it did long ago, he said.

“It rises fast and falls fast. It makes it difficult because you don’t know what to expect,” Worsham said. “It’s always been unpredictable, but it just seems like it’s more extreme than it used to be.”

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

Cairo, Ill. — A river traffic jam

Standing at the tip of Fort Defiance State Park, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, it’s impossible not to encounter history.

It was here that Ulysses S. Grant helped launch efforts to give the Union control of the Mississippi River during the Civil War. And before that, where Lewis and Clark set up camp, practicing navigation skills they would need on their journey west. And where, before any of them, Native Americans populated these and other fertile lands nearby.

On a recent morning, history of another kind was being made.

Barges were parked alongside the river banks as far as the eye could see. Their tug boats, with names such as Addi Belle and Miss Deborah and Harvest Maiden, sat idle in a way that tugs on the Mississippi rarely do.

Just down the river, Casey Showers was standing on a tug that had slowly worked its way north from Vicksburg, Miss. He has spent more than six years working on the vessels that travel the river, pushing barges through the heart of the country. But this most recent trip had startled him in a way few others had.

“There was no traffic,” said Showers, 29. “A lot of people just aren’t moving.”

Showers, a steersman, said even many of the old-timers he encounters say water levels are lower than they can remember. But stay on the river long enough, they tell him, and you will see everything.

“The river does what she wants,” Showers said, “We just work with her.”

Memphis — ‘It’s going to impact all of us’

Tourists still flock to the gates of Graceland and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. From the barbecue joints to the bustling, neon-studded bars of Beale Street, a sense of normalcy reigns in Tennessee’s second-largest city.

It’s only by the waterfront that nothing seems quite normal. In recent days, water levels here hit historic lows. The city’s famed riverboats, while still running, are docked far down a steep embankment usually covered by water. Gawkers come, cameras in hand, to snap photos of the withered river.

“It’s the worst I’ve seen in my lifetime,” said John Butler on a recent afternoon. He’s a fifth-generation farmer from West Tennessee but now runs a Memphis-based educational and research nonprofit, Agricenter International.

Even in the city, his thoughts are with farmers out in the countryside.

“It’s feast or famine when you farm along the river,” he said, explaining that this year alone, farmers grappled with soaring fertilizer prices and crippling amounts of rain early in the year, followed by scorching summer heat and now drought.

When Butler looks out at the strangely quiet river, he thinks of the crops that aren’t making their way south, the supplies that aren’t coming north and the reverberations that have yet to come.

“It’s going to impact all of us,” Butler said. “It’s really catastrophic.”

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)

Nearby, at the Memphis Yacht Club, a different kind of disaster is on display.

General manager Joe Weiss points to a nearby piling, where the high-water mark from the flood of 2011 is shown. It’s more than 50 feet above where he now stands. Around him, more than 80 boats are parked in their slips, mired in mud, with little hope they will escape soon.

Some owners have called recently to ask Weiss if their boats are stuck on the river bottom. “You’ve been in the mud for two weeks,” he tells them.

Weiss said the river typically would be about 35 feet deeper at the marina than it is now. But these days are anything but typical.

“It’s sad,” he said, “but it’s what we are dealing with.”

Portageville, Mo. — Sunset on the ‘desert’

People these days have been flocking to a spot known as the Old Ferry Landing, where the road runs out. And who could blame them? Here, where the mighty Mississippi once stretched from tree line to tree line, you can walk out a half mile or more on the ancient river bottom, now just dust and rock.

On a recent evening, families arrive in minivans to see the surreal sight. Couples walk their dogs, dodging the bony carcasses of long-dead fish. Teenagers take selfies. All of them grasp for words to describe the indescribable scene of a fierce river all but vanished.

“It’s like a desert,” said John Nelson, who came 40 miles. He and his wife were exploring long-submerged tree trunks and texting relatives photos of the spectacle. “I’m 66, and I’ve never seen it this low.”

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)

David and Terry Finley were making their third trip from their home in Arkansas to the spot on a recent evening. Something keeps drawing them back — maybe the vast emptiness that feels so unfamiliar, or the realization they might never experience this again.

“You see it at its most powerful, and now, at its weakest,” Terry said, her arms filled with souvenirs of driftwood as the sun set purple and orange behind her.

In the distance, other explorers were walking the arid landscape where the powerful river had once flowed. They looked like ants in the distance, against the backdrop of the sprawling riverbed.

“It’s surreal and eerie at the same time,” Terry said. “It just makes you think how small we all are.”

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