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Midwest Drought Points to Little Relief for Mississippi River Shipping

A towboat pushes dry bulk cargo barges down the Ohio River near St. Louis, Missouri. Photo: Shutterstock/Jon Rehg

Midwest Drought Points to Little Relief for Mississippi River Shipping

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October 13, 2022

By Brian K. Sullivan (Bloomberg) —

A drought is spreading across the US Midwest, drying up the Mississippi River and its tributaries that serve as a critical freight artery for the country.

From Iowa to Ohio, nearly a third of the region is in drought, up from a quarter a week earlier, according to Thursday’s update from the US Drought Monitor. Parched conditions have also jumped in states bordering the Mississippi, like Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana.

It all points to little relief for the transportation snafus seen in recent weeks. The dwindling water levels have led to barge groundings, forcing blockages and days-long delays on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, which are among the most important routes for US heavy industry and agricultural shipments. 

“Low water like this, and how fast it hit, will be the stuff of legends,” said Margo Brock, chief operating officer of shipping logistics firm Mercury Resources LLC.

Dredging, or the removal of silt and other debris from river bottoms, has allowed vessel traffic to resume on some dried-up stretches of the Mississippi. Barge shipments on Midwest rivers jumped 105% from the previous week as of Oct. 8, the US Department of Agriculture said in a Thursday report.

Drought during the autumn harvest — when demand to ship swelling supplies of soybeans and corn is at a peak — has pushed costs for chartering barges in the benchmark St. Louis market to three times more expensive than at any point in the past 20 years, according to Kevin McNew, chief economist at Farmers Business Network.

“It doesn’t seem like something that will correct anytime soon,” McNew said.

In addition to the low river flows, pasture land and ponds are drying out throughout the Midwest, according to the monitor. Soil moisture has dropped in many places with little rain falling since August, a bad sign for crops.

Weather forecasts aren’t encouraging. No rain is expected for most of the Midwest in the next seven days, the US Weather Prediction Center said. Northern Minnesota, parts of Wisconsin, Michigan and most of Kentucky will likely get less than an inch of rain.

–With assistance from Joe Deaux, Michael Hirtzer, Kim Chipman and Diego Lasarte.

© 2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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