It’s a routine that’s settled in as the drought in the nation’s central states leaves the river without the rainfall that is its lifeblood. The river is fed by the third-largest watershed in the world — a large chunk of the U.S. and part of Canada — and drought in that area means lower water along the river. That can put a major hurting on industries that use the river to ship hundreds of millions of tons of products, from grain to gasoline, every year.
One estimate put barge industry losses at $1 billion the last time the river was this low, in 1988. That’s why dredges, which knock down shallow spots and clear the shipping channel, are so vital in times like these. Shallow spots have already shut down the river at times this year, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has asked to close it again for about 12 hours on Monday, this time for dredging near Baton Rouge, La.
Aboard the Dredge Jadwin, a massive-four story hulk that’s working around the clock to clear channels at Greenville, crews are pumping enough material from the river bottom every day to cover a football field 40 feet deep with sand and Mississippi mud.
Dredging is a way of life on the river because its upstream tributaries wash enormous amounts of silt each year down to the Gulf of Mexico.
But veterans like the Jadwin’s quality control officer, Bobby Justice, say they’ve never seen the river quite like this.
“This year we’re dredging in spots we usually don’t,” he said.
The dredge worked for just over a week to deepen the channel north of Greenville and widen it at one of the river’s many bends. It then moved a few miles downriver to another trouble spot where a barge ran aground this week, temporarily shutting down the river.
Pointing to a sandbar that stretches from the water’s edge out about a half mile, Justice shook his head.
“You’re seeing sand right there that hasn’t been visible since 1988,” the last time the river was this low.
It isn’t just the sand and mud that are creating a nervous vigil at the river.
Navigation markers that mark channels require constant adjustment to keep towboats and barges out of trouble zones. The buoys get displaced either by ships or the shifting river itself.
The strain on crews and machinery is considerable — two of the 50-year-old buoy tenders that work the river from Louisiana to Missouri have been down for repairs, said Coast Guard Capt. William Drelling.
“It adds a challenge,” he said.
Kavanaugh Breazeale, spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, said the corps is fighting money problems as well as the river. The corps is using emergency funds but is working on a tight budget because of the expense of dealing with last year’s Mississippi flood.