Continued drought conditions have brought the Mississippi River to its lowest level since 1988 and have lead the U.S. Coast Guard to close an 11-mile stretch of the river, backing up traffic on the heavily used waterway. In New Orleans, the levels mean salt water is creeping into the drinking supply.
Members of the Mississippi River Commission, which advises the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on managing the river, met one of it stops in Caruthersville, Mo. on Monday during its annual low water inspection tour. "The unofficial 28 day forecast is for no rain and if that happens, we will be approaching the water levels, the historic water levels of 1988 which means problems up and down the river system," said R.D. James with the Mississippi River Commission. "If we go below the water stages of 1988, I don't think there'll be enough dredges available even if we had the money to maintain the harbors and the channel from Cairo to the Gulf. It'd be tragic."
To keep the water at levels usable for cargo, the Army Corps of Engineers has set out a dozen dredging vessels to suck up sediment from the bottom of the river and spit it out to banks.
In The Lede blog in the New York Times discusssing the Mississippi River Commission's tour, John Schwartz subtley points out how factors beyond drought may be affecting river levels: "Brig. Gen. Margaret W. Burcham, a member of the commission, said that on this year’s trip, gas drillers in North Dakota have expressed their need to use enormous quantities of water from the upper Mississippi for fracking [emphasis ours], but farmers farther downstream want that water for irrigation; while others want the water in the river so they can get their good to market on barges."
The low water levels in the river are bringing a drinking water crisis to the New Orleans area. The low level coupled with the higher density of salt water is allowing water from the Gulf to travel upward affecting water supplies. To stop this, a $5.8 million underwater sill is being created by making a dam from sediment from further up the river.
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WBUR has an audio segment on the situation: "A Trip Down The Drought-Ridden Mississippi River"
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NOLA.com has video showing Michelle Spraul, Operations Manager for the Mississippi River, New Orleans District for the U.S. Army Corp of Engineerson describing the sill or "underwater levee" to be constructed to halt stop the flow of saltwater into the Mississippi.