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Is the Mississippi River Running Dry?

The Mighty Mississippi to Run Dry?

by Robert Morley

If the world’s largest navigable river system goes dry, the economic consequences will be felt around the world.

What is the single greatest reason America is so wealthy? According to the analysts at Stratfor, it is because of a river.

They have to be joking, right?

What about America’s vast gold resources? What about its mountains of coal? America is the world’s third-largest oil producer—surely that is why. Then there is America’s temperate climate and fertile soils that traditionally make it the world’s breadbasket. And don’t forget America’s human capital, Yankee ingenuity, and Protestant work ethic. Surely these factors are cumulatively more important than a river.

Not according to one of America’s premier think tanks. Many countries have large natural resources and hospitable climates, but don’t even come close to having America’s wealth. What sets America apart from the rest of the world is the Mississippi River basin. It is what makes exploiting America’s resources economically possible.

But now, due to the worst drought since the 1950s, the Mississippi may be about to go dry.

In Memphis and Vicksburg, the shrinking river is obvious: slower river, exposed river banks, and more sandbars. The water is down more than 13 and 20 feet in each city respectively. The Mississippi on average is about 13 feet below normal—and a whopping 55 feet below where it was at this time last year. On some stretches, the water level is perilously low. On July 17 it was reported that a 100-mile stretch of the Platte River in Nebraska, had dried up.

In fact, water levels are now so low that barge operators are no longer able to operate at full capacity and have to shed both weight and number of towed barges.

For each one-inch loss of water, the standard barge must unload 17 tons of cargo—that is a loss of 204 tons, per barge, for every one-foot loss. A typical tow on the upper Mississippi river may have 15 barges. A one-foot loss of water translates into a loss of 3,000 tons of capacity. Tows on the lower Mississippi River may have up to 45 barges, resulting in a loss of capacity of over 9,000 tons. Tom Allegretti, president of the American Waterways Operators, reports that it would take 130 semitrucks or 570 rail cars to haul the freight unloaded by one large barge grouping under those conditions—almost 600 rail cars just to make up for the loss of one string of barges! There are thousands and thousands of barge strings that ply the Mississippi each year. The shutdown of the Mississippi would be an absolute catastrophe!

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