The Mississippi River drought was big news when barges grounded, receding waters revealed new historical artifacts, and river traffic came to a brief halt in October.
But the drought didn’t end when the canal reopened.
Barges were only able to transport goods on the historically shallow Mississippi because the US Army Corps of Engineers was constantly sweeping the riverbed.
“It’s been a pretty intense couple of months,” Lou Dell’Orco, chief of operations and preparedness for the USACE St. Louis District, told Insider. Louis.
The USACE maintains a nine-foot-deep channel in the Mississippi River so that ships and barges can travel freely.
To keep this channel open, Dell’Orco had to bring in additional dredges from other areas.
At some points, three boats operated 24 hours a day, traveling to choke points in the St. Louis area, dropping suction tubes to the river bottom, inhaling material from the bed and transporting it through tubes to designated disposal sites—such as “a huge vacuum cleaner,” in Dell’Orco’s words.
“Our dredge can fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool every hour or so,” he said.
It’s normal for the USACE to keep one dredge on the job 24/7 throughout the season, but not two or three, Dell’Orco said.
A four-day break during a cold spell over Christmas gave the crews time to do minor maintenance work on the boats. One of the dredgers left the area at the time, and the second left St. Louis last week, Dell’Orco said.
More rain and snow have improved conditions on the river, and it looks like the end of the crisis is in sight.
“Commerce is moving unconstrained by the drought,” Deb Calhoun, senior vice president at the Waterways Council, a group that advocates for modern waterway infrastructure, told Insider in an email. “We’ll watch out for high water next day, which usually happens this time of year.”
Dell’Orco expects his crews to be able to stop dredging by the end of January.
Drought Damage Control by the Numbers: 3 Dredges Sucking the Riverbed 24/7
Since July, the St. Louis area has dredged about 9 million cubic yards of material from the river bottom at about 70 locations, Dell’Orco said. In a normal year, they would only dredge 3 to 4 million cubic meters.
That’s more than 2,700 Olympic-sized pools of material removed from the riverbed, compared to just 1,000 Olympic-sized pools in a regular season.
This year, the dredging season has also been extended at least 100 days longer than normal, Dell’Orco added.
He estimates it costs about $6.5 million to operate two dredges for a month. Throw in a third dredge and he said the USACE is looking at $10 million a month.
Climate change could make droughts like this year more frequent
The last time the Mississippi fell to such extreme lows and required this much management was 2012.
No research has directly linked these specific drought events to climate change. But scientists are confident that rising temperatures will exacerbate drought in much of the US.
In this case, a summer of record heat waves drained some of the river’s water, and then a sudden drought hit the Ohio and Missouri river valleys, depriving the Mississippi of the snow that normally feeds it.
It’s unclear how climate change will affect the Mississippi River in the long term, AccuWeather meteorologist Paul Pastelok told Insider. But the river’s drought cycle is likely to accelerate.
Instead of every 10 to 15 years, for example, drought could hit the river every five to 10 years.
Forecast maps show Mississippi’s drought may end soon
Much of the Mississippi River Basin is still classified as drought, including lower reaches that help farmers transport grain for export, according to the US Drought Monitor.
But that could end in the coming weeks. Forecasts from the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center offer hope that drought will ease across much of the Mississippi River Basin in February.
Above average rainfall in the northern Midwest could help replenish the river throughout the month. That’s when Calhoun and Dell’Orco will be on flood watch.
After that, forecasts show no drought conditions in the Mississippi River Basin for the first time in months.
This would give the Dell’Orco team time to do maintenance on their vessel before the dredging season starts again in July.
“It’s really a shorter maintenance period. You have March to mid-June to get it ready,” Dell’Orco said.
That shouldn’t be a problem, he added. But then again, “it’s a 90-year-old boat. It needs a lot of TLC.”
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