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Grid Brief Premium: Low Mississippi Blues

Grid Brief Premium: Low Mississippi Blues

The Mississippi River cleaves the country in half, its tributaries spooling out widely East and West. The American inventor Robert Fulton gave the world the first commercially successful steamboat in 1807 and a few decades later, a young Missourian named Samuel Clemens began his career as a steamboat pilot, learning to read the water like a book. He would take a pen name, Mark Twain, a steamboating term that signaled water two fathoms (12 ft.) deep; safe enough to pilot through. Right now, much of the Mississippi sits below “twain.”

For the second year in a row, the Mississippi has fallen so low, it has gummed up its shipping lanes. A stubborn drought has thinned the river to unnavigable lows from Jackson, Mississippi to the Ohio River—a 400 mile stretch, or about 17% of the river’s length. Last year, some thousands of barges sat in queue due to the low water levels. As a result, many shipping companies have continued to slash their freight capacity. To put this in perspective, a 15-tow barge moves freight equivalent to 940 semi trucks. This is all tough news for agribusiness.

“The agricultural products and the huge agribusiness industry that has developed in the basin produce 92% of the nation's agricultural exports, 78% of the world's exports in feed grains and soybeans, and most of the livestock and hogs produced nationally,” reports the National Park Service. “Sixty percent of all grain exported from the US is shipped on the Mississippi River through the Port of New Orleans and the Port of South Louisiana.”

Crop buyers have started to look elsewhere for product. While the Army Corps of Engineers has dredged the river to make way for more shipping and this month’s levels sit above last month’s record low, grain shipments still struggle to move along the river.

“Export inspections of American wheat in the week ended Nov. 2 totaled only 71,608 metric tons, with some wheat shipped from Duluth, Minnesota, through the Great Lakes but virtually nothing on the Mississippi River, according to the US Department of Agriculture,” reports Bloomberg. “That is the smallest total on record in weekly USDA data going back to 1983.”

As a result, the US has lost its status as the shipper of choice for wheat.

That’s not the only problem along the river: low levels in the lower Mississippi threaten an influx of saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico. In response, Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana declared a state of emergency for Plaquemines Parish over the summer as saltwater slipped into the drinking water supply. To keep saltwater from flowing further north, the Army Corps of Engineering built a 1,500 underwater levee south of New Orleans. In September, Plaquemines Parish President W. Keith Hinkley announced that clean water was being distributed to around 2,000 residents who whose water was spoiled by the intrusion. The Army Corps plans to expand the levee.

If drought is hurting the Mississippi, it’s likely also hurting hydropower. And while the middle of the country isn’t as rich in hydro dams as the coasts, the EIA has cut its hydropower production forecast for the year by 6%. Readers who keep up with our What’s Keeping the Lights On series know that hydro plays a small, but not insignificant role in the Midcontinent Independent System Operator’s footprint. Yet hydro isn’t the only power generator to consider: coal also flows down the river. Coal plays a far larger role in powering MISO than hydropower. And, as we covered this week, MISO (like every other grid operator) is trying to figure out how to guarantee reliability in an increasingly fragile grid.

Does that mean low water levels along the Mississippi auger power supply shortages for MISO? I wouldn’t be so bold. But what the current state of the Mississippi reveals is how hard we need to work as a society to make our well-being less, not more, weather dependent. Droughts can linger and recoveries come slow.

"We are expecting improving drought conditions for the lower to middle Mississippi Valley during the next few months. But for the hydrological impacts such as low river levels and low ground water levels, that will be a little slower to recover,” Brad Pugh, operational drought lead with NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, said last month. “The hydrological impacts could linger beyond the end of January.”

Crom’s Blessing

Samuel Clemens, age fifteen.