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Stuck on the River

Barges on river

Scientists and researchers have warned for years that extended, new weather patterns (possibly permanent or at least long-lasting) are and will create challenges for our personal and professional futures. Water levels are so low in Vicksburg, Mississippi, that a bridge has physically shifted.

It’s a lack of precipitation – and in some cases, record drought -- causing issues for various industries that depend on giant barges to carry their goods down the river. That means the “Mighty Mississippi” is not as mighty these days.

“Barges grounded by low water halt Mississippi River traffic,” read the headline in this report from the Associated Press.

Barges are vital to commodities like soybeans and corn, particularly in the Midwest. The Mississippi River is a key artery through the Heartland but continued drought has drained the river and, at times, made movement for some vessels temporarily impossible.

Some of the barges just can’t physically pass without getting stuck on the bottom of the river. The water level is just too low. That’s the reality of it. And the timing is especially bad for producers and transporters.

“It’s certainly the worst time possible for these bad conditions,” said Matt Ziegler, manager of public policy and regulatory affairs for the National Corn Growers Association.

Producers are trying to move their fall harvest. And river transport is the preferred mode of choice for some of them. It’s crunch time.

Here’s the depth of the problem, according to data from the National Weather Service:

That column of figures in red is like a flashing emergency alert for those dependent on minimum, consistent precipitation to keep the river flowing at an acceptable level. So even if growers managed to produce a decent harvest this year, despite drought conditions at home, they may run into another precip-induced obstacle as they try to get their crops to market.

Those barges that aren’t getting stuck are being forced to carry a lighter load. Unfortunately, it’s something that those involved are getting too much experience navigating. What used to be a once-in-a-decade occurrence with insufficient water levels has now been a significant issue for the second year in a row.

--RELATED: The worst drought in a decade reduced USDA predictions for Illinois corn (214 bushes per acre in 2022 to 200 in 2023), as well as in Iowa (200 bushes per acre last year to 199 this year).

Let it snow, let it melt. That may be the best hope for those dependent on barges getting an easier journey down the river next year. Winter snow can (hopefully) melt into higher water levels in the spring.


American Farmland Owner Hayfields mountains


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