The Mississippi River and Low Water (Dec. Newsletter)

Today we are talking about record lows in the Mississippi River value with its implications on restricting shipping, while in the recent past we were talking about record high water.  In both cases, this complicates navigation, as mariners must respond  to changing waterway conditions.

While the Mississippi River is generally recognized as a key commercial corridor for the United States, it is normally not understood how that system relates to the modal systems until something happens that forces people to consider its importance to the nation. In the case of low water, navigation channels become both shallower and narrower.  This means that towing companies tend to load lighter or with less total barges, leading to additional costs to both barge operators and shippers.  In response to these lower levels, portions of the Pinnacles will be removed to allow for navigation.  A second rock removal project is planned to begin in February.

Regarding trade, the Mississippi River is a large gateway for U.S. exports, as agricultural products, petroleum products and chemicals comprise the bulk of the export traffic.  (Figure 1.  shows the sources exports that leave the Lower River, and each state’s estimated share of exports that depart from the Lower Mississippi River.)  However that corridor remains very dependent upon barge traffic to bring exports downriver (and imports northwards).  See my presentation on the Lower River.)


Exports by State of Origin, 2011 through the Lower Mississippi River, 2011.Mississippi River and State exports






For the months of December and January, the financial value in economic impact is expected to exceed $7 billion.     Reducing barge traffic generally results in some cargo switching to highways, and not railroads, as the alternative mode part based on studies conducted by the Corps of Engineers and others.  This implies that when a system fails, even partially, it can lead to large modal disruptions in other parts of the network.  There are also changing shipments of grain, such as inbound grain shipments arriving in Port Manatee, Florida.

In other ways, the Mississippi River seems to be part of a general sense of uneasiness in the transportation industry.  The Mayan Calendar predicted the end of the world.  While the world has not yet ended, the low water conditions on the Mississippi/Missouri Rivers, longshoreman/labor issues, changing in global markets, and unease in the domestic transportation volumes; suggest that the future will look different from the past.  In this regard, how do we manage these systems, recognizing that operational constraints may limit our ability to respond quickly, or in a way that is consistent with the previous operational framework?

One Response to “The Mississippi River and Low Water (Dec. Newsletter)”

  1. Z Dave says:

    Thanks Bruce. Very good analysis. Unfortunately it seems the administration does not understand that the water they are holding on the Missouri River for next year will not be needed if you cant get the barges up and down the Mississippi. We wont need a Missouri.