This story was originally published by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.
DUBUQUE, Iowa — As Old Man River slowly awakens from its winter slumber, eagles work the edges of the opening channels and marina docks groan as the slow current wrestles the ice. Anglers — and an occasional whitetail deer — tread cautiously on the big river.
Just like any other early spring on the Upper Mississippi.
But April brings heightened concerns for the Mississippi River watershed, the world’s fourth largest. As state and federal officials prepare for the prospects of spring floods, last fall’s drought, which stalled commercial boat traffic on the mighty river, is never far from mind. The drought provided an expensive reminder of just how vital — and how vulnerable — the economic thoroughfare is.
“It’s a highway. … If you haven’t lived around it, you don’t recognize it,” said Lou Dell’Orco, chief of operations for the Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District. “But it’s a major artery to move goods and commerce in a safe, efficient and cost-effective manner.”
The Mississippi River basin, which includes 32 states and two Canadian provinces, produces 92% of the nation’s agricultural exports and 78% of the world’s exports in feed grains and soybeans. Millions of barrels of crude oil and other petroleum products move on the river monthly, as does 35% of the nation’s exports of thermal coal, which fuels power plants.
The economies of states in the basin also feel the effects of the river’s temperamental nature. Eleven of the top 12 agriculture-exporting states in the nation lie in the basin.
When the river dropped precipitously last fall, it snarled barge traffic and delayed shipments, exacerbating supply chain problems and bringing the Mississippi River’s role in the U.S. and global markets to the fore. With climate change bringing more extreme weather conditions, river planners expect more droughts, more flooding and more challenges ahead.
That will require hard decisions, and the greatest navigational challenges might be political, including how much navigation and restoration money will emerge from congressional budget deliberations.
What comes this spring is uncertain. The National Weather Service’s spring flood forecast called the risk to the Mississippi mainstem “well above normal.”
Since February, the service reported, at least one significant weather system has moved through the Upper Mississippi region each week, leaving an “anomalously large snowpack.” The rate of snowmelt and future storms will determine the severity of flooding, the service said.
Seasonal floods have long taken their toll on river commerce. In 2019, for example, damage to public and private property, plus losses to crops and livestock, in the Mississippi basin reached $20 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
On March 12, the first two tow boats of the season pushed their way into St. Paul, Minnesota, breaking ice on Lake Pepin, the final barrier before the Twin Cities. Their arrival, a week ahead of the average first trip of the spring, marked the unofficial start of the navigation season.
Ice, floods and low water made navigating the Mississippi difficult long before Mark Twain began chronicling its charms and dangers. The dangers are expected to become more frequent.
“We’ve known for quite some time that climate change is going to be causing these pendulum swings between extreme drought and extreme floods,” said Olivia Dorothy, director for the Upper Mississippi Basin at American Rivers, which calls for tougher federal and state regulation of rivers and calls 85% of dams “unnecessary.”
On Oct. 22, the river gauge at Memphis dropped to 10.79 feet below its normal level, the lowest reading since monitoring began there in 1954. With the Coast Guard posting a low-water safety advisory for more than 500 miles of the river, scores of vessels with hundreds of barges queued at choke points along the river.
Low water creates multiple challenges for shippers. Currents and shoals become more dangerous. Barges must be loaded with fewer products, requiring more barges that add to the traffic jams at locks.
Last year’s slowdown, like a similar event in 2012, arrived at harvest time. The slowdown brought a $20 billion hit to the national economy, according to an AccuWeather analysis. Shipping costs rose dramatically.
Mike Steenhoek, executive director with the Soy Transportation Coalition, told WQAD in Davenport, Iowa, that because of last year’s low water, soybean producers in the Quad Cities area of Iowa and Illinois this past November paid 278% more for shipping compared with 2021 rates. The coalition represents 13 state soybean associations.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that river shipping saves about $1 per bushel for corn and soybean commerce over other methods and lessens the load on truck or rail transport.
With global supply chains already struggling because of the COVID-19 pandemic, another worldwide event elevated the river’s role in global trade: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“With the backdrop of what’s happened in the Ukraine, with the breadbasket of Europe being knocked out, to be able to fulfill those foreign buyers’ orders … They needed to make sure that the commerce continued,” said Deb Calhoun, a senior vice president for Waterways Council Inc., an industry advocacy group. Dredging by the Army Corps of Engineers and channel work by the Coast Guard to keep energy exports moving also assisted European allies facing pressure from Russia, she said.
While the drought eased later in the fall and river traffic improved, the corps dealt with the drought’s fallout through March.
In a normal year, the Corps’ St. Louis District will dredge about 4 million cubic yards from 30 locations along 300 miles of river, Dell’Orco said. Last year, it dredged 9.5 million cubic yards from 70 locations, he said.
Environment vs. Industry
Commerce has dominated the Mississippi River’s management over the decades.
“It’s really why Thomas Jefferson bought the place, to be able to do trade and to do commerce and that continues today, of course,” Calhoun said, referring to the third U.S. president’s push for the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
A diverse group of large and small interests span the river, from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico at the tail end of Louisiana. For some, the river is a superhighway. For others, it’s a natural resource devastated by dams, locks and levees.
For all the economic stats and figures that define the river, the Mississippi also is world-class habitat for fish and wildlife. Sixty percent of North American birds migrate on the Mississippi flyway, according to the National Park Service. The river holds at least 260 species of fish.
“The construction of the dams fundamentally changed the river from a river to a reservoir system and you can never restore the river unless you take out the dams,” said Dorothy, of American Rivers.
For policy makers, it is a search for balance.
In the historic river town of Dubuque, Iowa, there’s a sense of confidence that the balance exists. The city relies on more than 6 miles of Army Corps-built flood walls and pumping stations to protect its downtown and other sections of the city that were devasted in a 1965 flood.
Now the city of nearly 60,000 residents embraces a reinvigorated riverfront. The National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium hugs the edge of a marina and features the William M. Black, a 277-foot side-wheeled steamboat. A casino, hotels, a craft brewery and restaurants draw locals and tourists.
Since global cruise giant Viking began Mississippi River excursions in 2022, the industry has taken off. The city expects 52 riverboat stops this season, bringing 40,000 visitors to the city, according to Julie Kronlage of Travel Dubuque.
For John Klostermann, Dubuque’s public works director, the solution balances out for the city, but he acknowledged that the Army Corps of Engineers’ work, which for decades has focused on building dams, and dredging byways to accommodate commerce, can be controversial.
“The [Army Corps] do have to walk that fine line, and I think they do a really pretty good job at it,” he said.
The corps has long drawn criticism for emphasizing commercial needs over environmental concerns. A U.S. Geological Survey monitoring program indicates existing habitat is disappearing at 2.5% to 3% every year on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, while the Army Corps is replacing it at a .5% rate, according to the Waterways Council Inc.
American Rivers and other environmental organizations seek a more coordinated effort through a proposed federal Mississippi River Restoration and Resilience Initiative. Legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat, would establish the initiative to coordinate efforts by agencies. The bill drew 11 co-sponsors, all Democrats and all but one from states along the river.
The bill did not advance out of a House subcommittee. But McCollum, who grew up along the river in South St. Paul, Minnesota, included language in a report attached to the FY 2021 appropriations bill that directed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop a Mississippi River restoration and resilience strategy.
For now, industry and some environmental organizations see promise in the federal Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program, which attempts to balance modernizing the waterway infrastructure with restoring the health of the river. Planned as a $7.9 billion, 50-year project, NESP has identified more than 1,000 projects.
For shippers, that means a push for 1,200-foot locks, which double the capacity of most locks along the river. Proposed environmental improvements include restoring fish habitat and floodplain restoration.
Although authorized by Congress in 2007, progress has been slow, stymied by inconsistent funding until the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill became law in 2021.
The first environmental improvement project under the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program was approved in 2022, a modification of a wing dam along a Minnesota section of the Mississippi. A contractor will “notch” rocks out of the dam to improve fish habitat. The initial work on expanding the 600-foot lock in Winfield, Missouri, to 1,200 feet is expected to begin this spring.
But critics contend these programs are not only too small, but that they miss the mark. For Dorothy, of American Rivers, a wider look is needed.
“The Corps of Engineers, the agencies, the federal government. … They’re still kind of operating under the assumption that, like, ‘Oh, if we just invest enough money in the Upper Mississippi River Restoration program, like, we will fix the river,’” she said.
Instead, she said, hard questions need to be asked. The efficiency of river shipping needs further study, she said. How will aging flood control infrastructure, including the reliance on sand-based levels that are prone to saturation, hold up during the longer, more intense weather events spawned by climate change?
“Decisions that we made in the past may no longer work for us in the future,” she said.
The Army Corps of Engineers did not respond to a request for comment.