The commerce associated with the Mississippi River hasn't passed into history along with slavery and Huck. The river is still a major shipping route for agricultural and manufacturing interests in America's mid-section and America's mid-section is drying up. So is the river.
The Mississippi's low water levels already have caused kinks in the supply chain as some farmers and manufacturers choose to ship their crops by truck or train, which can't carry nearly as much as barges. Barge companies have reduced the number of barges pushed by towboats and the weight carried by each barge so they don't run aground.
The exact economic effect of the low water levels is difficult to calculate. But under normal conditions, about $7 billion worth of commodities is shipped on the river in December and January, according to the American Waterways Operators, a trade group representing the barge industry.
"There is no doubt about it: I think this is the most serious situation that this industry has faced, going back to the severe drought of 1988 and 1989," said Ann McCulloch, a spokeswoman for the organization. ...LATimes
Those of us who live in the central plains are well aware of the damage. Cracking soil, dead trees, sagging fence posts, cattle going to market years early, feed prices rising -- we thought we'd left all that behind us when some rain fell earlier in the year. Now it's been months since we've had more than a drifting drizzle. Here the low water in the river is mostly a symptom. Up along the Mississippi it's a full-blown disaster.
Even when barges are allowed to pass through the area overnight, traffic can move in only one direction at a time.
"It's nice to get a break, but this is not the type of break I was looking for," Cox said as his towboat idled in the river, already hours late for its scheduled arrival in Cairo.
Capt. Paul Roos relieved Cox late in the afternoon, then began steering the boat's 16 barges downriver long after sunset, when the corps reopened the shipping channel through Thebes.
As an orange sliver of moon hung low over the river, Roos maneuvered the string of barges, nearly as long as three football fields. He trained the boat's powerful twin spotlights on the green and red buoys lining the channel as the boat pushed its load south.
He kept close watch on depth readings — which at one point read 10.1 feet, about a foot more than the minimum he needed.
"Ten foot — that gets a lot of people's attention," Roos said.
For the 39-year veteran of Mississippi River towboats, the lessons he learned when he first started working on the river apply now more than ever.
"Don't ever think you've mastered it," he said. "The day you think you've mastered it, it will humble you. Overconfidence is not a good trait out here." ...LATimes
Confidence doesn't work all that well in the rest of the country, either -- not so far.