A lack of rain in the central part of the United States has created a crisis on the Mississippi River. The most important inland U.S. waterway is reaching historic low levels, which could significantly disrupt shipping. The U.S. Coast Guard, which plays a key role in determining whether the river stays open to traffic, is keeping one eye on the receding river, and another on the skies hoping for rain.
Crew members on board the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Gasconade are struggling to keep traffic flowing on the Mississippi River.
As the water level beneath them continues to drop, the green and red buoys they deploy to mark the shallow spots are all that stand between successful navigation of the river and disaster.
“As it gets narrower, there’s less room to move around, and things like wind pushing on you and the shallow water coming up it makes it very difficult,” said Ryan Christensen of the U.S. Coast Guard.
So difficult in fact that some barge traffic winds up stuck amid rocks or sand bars if they venture outside a 100-meter-wide, 2.7-meter-deep channel.
The Coast Guard’s goal is to prevent that from happening, a job Chief Ryan Christensen admits is becoming more difficult as the Mississippi recedes.
“I think it’s pretty tough. There’s a lot of places where two boats can pass and now it’s one way traffic that they have to choose to go through there one boat at a time,” he said.
Barges that make their way up and down the Mississippi River carry more than $100 billion worth of goods every year. Any disruption has significant consequences for the U.S. economy.