When The Big Muddy Runs Dry

Those who care to know realize that this Winter so far has meant no relief from severe drought over most of the central United States and prospects do not look good for Spring either. Another Summer like last year, and some towns in West Texas will start to run out of water entirely. Despite that, not a single West Texas broadcast news station has used the words “climate change” in three years of reporting on the drought. Denialism is rife in the Red States even when the object of denial is right up in people’s faces.

And here’s another symptom where the underlying cause is hardly being talked about where it matters – the mighty Mississippi is so shallow that barge traffic cannot move - costing the economy billions in lost trade and wages.

 A news release issued by two trade groups, the American Waterways  Operators and Waterways Council, warned last week that water levels had fallen faster than anticipated, and a section of the river may become impassable by Thursday. The groups estimate that a closure until the end of the month would affect about 8,000 jobs, $54m in wages and benefits, and 7.2m tonnes of commodities, worth around $2.8bn dollars.

Debra Colbert, senior vice-president of the Waterways Council, told The Independent: “We have never had an extended closure on the Mississippi. This is the height of the export shipping season. From now until March, more than 60 per cent of the nation’s grain moves on the inland waterway, bound for export. The impacts are going to be enormous, not only to barge and towing operators, but also to farmers, shippers and producers, and those who rely on the waterways.”

The worst-affected stretch runs 180 miles from St Louis, Missouri, south to Cairo, Illinois, where the Mississippi is met by the Ohio River. A depth gauge at Thebes, Illinois, measured just 6ft last week; the National Weather Service forecasts a drop to 3ft by Thursday, and as low as 2ft before February. The minimum depth for the safe passage of most barges is 9ft.

Responsibility for keeping the shipping channel open falls to the US Army’s Corps of Engineers, which said the drought-induced crisis was “equal to or worse than any of the past five decades”.

Last year’s drought could herald further disruption. Ms Colbert said: “Whether or not anyone believes in  climate change, it is worth looking at how the Corps of Engineers manages all the rivers it is responsible for. Their operating manual was last updated  in the 1940s, so it doesn’t take into  account the changes we’ve seen.”

Climate change is set to be a big story in 2013 whether the denialists like it or not, however. 2012 was a disaster of a year, weather-wise, with 11 billion dollar events. The Mississippi drying is only the first such event of 2013.

1 comment to When The Big Muddy Runs Dry

  • yogi-one

    Remember when the climate change predicters would always include the “do nothing” scenario? That was supposed to be the “business as usual” option. It was always assumed that this would result in the worst case scenario.

    However, the rates of change we are seeing are surpassing those ‘worst case scenarios’ of a few years back. The feedbacks are greater – the ocean is rising faster, the increase in the size of storms and durations of drought is greater than the “do nothing” scenarios, and the rate of icecap melt is greater.

    So now we get to find out what happens when we do nothing, even though the disaster has struck.
    It seems we have decided – by default – that the “do nothing” option is the one we are going to follow, come hell or high water (and they both are already coming). The national embarrassment of Katrina is becoming our model for response to climate events.

    To be fair, it seems that the common folk and especially municipalities, get it and want to take action. The insurance industry gets it – not because they are good people, but because they have to pay for the disasters. The military gets it – again, not because they are great moralists, but because they have to pay for the energy it takes to run a the world’s largest army, air force and navy (checked how much fuel a tank uses lately – or a raptor?) It takes a lot of energy to kill people and can get hella expensive. There must be cheaper, greener ways to annihilate the bad-guys-du-jour.

    Climate change (aw, hell, let’s just call it what it is: global warming) is real by the most real of measuring sticks: money. It costs a hell of a lot of money to keep burning dirty fuel and dealing with the fallout. The military can’t afford it. Insurers can’t afford it. Cities and towns can’t afford it.

    But the Senate and House are so far out of touch with the real world that they can’t do anything about it.

    They might lose their biggest campaign donors – the polluters.

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