VIDEO: Low Mississippi River affecting commerce, could be long-term for Vicksburg

Published 3:18 pm Thursday, October 13, 2022

A lack of significant rain over the Mississippi River Basin has dropped the Mississippi River to levels not seen locally since after the 2011 flood, forcing cruise lines and towing companies to alter their operations on the river.

According to the National Weather Service, the river’s level at Vicksburg on Thursday morning was 4.3 feet, and it is projected to drop to 3 feet by Tuesday. And the low levels may be around for a while.

“Right now, they just keep inching it down every time we go, and it looks like it’s going to go toward the 2012-type of low of minus 1.07 feet on Aug. 29, 2012,” said Marty Pope, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service Office in Jackson.

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“Right now, the latest forecast is going to take us down on Nov. 8 down to 2 feet at Vicksburg and it could drop a lower than that,” he said, adding there is the potential to reach the 2012 mark “if we don’t get a lot of rain.”

And while the Mississippi Basin has seen some recent rainfall, it has not been sufficient to raise the river’s level.

Pope said low water periods on the Mississippi occur about every 10 years, adding there have been lower periods over the years. The record low was minus 7 feet on Feb. 3, 1940.

Austin Golding, president and CEO of Golding Barge Line in Vicksburg, said the low water periods are usually temporary events, “but this one looks like it’s going to be long-term.”

Video by Harrison Hadaway

Golding said the low water is forcing barge lines to “light load,” or put less product in the barges so they can use the river. The move, he said, forces the companies to use more barges to carry products and make more trips to deliver the same amount of goods they would normally carry in one trip. Golding moves primarily petroleum products.

Like the barge lines, the cruise lines that ply the Mississippi from New Orleans to the river’s origin in Minnesota have been forced to change their programs and schedules to deal with the river’s drop.

Viking Cruise Line, which began Mississippi River cruises in late September, has canceled cruises until the river reaches a safer level.

American Queen Steamboat Co. also canceled boats because of the low water, canceling its Sept. 23 and 30 and Oct. 6, 8, 13 and 15 dates in Vicksburg. However, American Cruise Lines boats have still been able to stop at the Vicksburg riverfront.

“American Cruise Lines’ five Mississippi riverboats are all operating according to schedule along both the Upper & Lower River,” American Cruise Lines spokesperson Alexa Paolella said.

She said two of the company’s riverboats were able to pass a few of the most recently affected areas along the Mississippi.

“Looking ahead, it remains possible that some itinerary changes might become necessary due to conditions along the River, but American has been cruising the Mississippi for over a decade and we are experienced in addressing possible changes that can become necessary due to unavoidable conditions along the River,” she said.

Mike Hicks, director of communications for American Queen, said all the company’s Mississippi River boats are located above the present closed areas.

“The American Queen is operating as scheduled between Memphis and Grafton (St. Louis),” he said. “The American Duchess and American Countess have adjusted Lower Mississippi River itineraries with alternative ports, turning in Memphis versus New Orleans.

“The Lower Mississippi River is the only portion of the river system currently impacted and upcoming Upper Mississippi, Ohio, Cumberland and Tennessee river voyages are operating as scheduled,” Hicks added.

And how long the low water problem will remain is unknown and depends on when the necessary rains arrive.

“Looking at the forecast, under a normal year you would start seeing some increases in rain toward the mid to late November/early December time frame and you’d start seeing some rises on the river at that time,” Pope said. “That’s still possible, but we’re under a La Niña right now and the La Niña forecast shows about equal chances of above normal or below normal rainfall over the Ohio Valley.”

In other words, the odds are 50-50 “if we’ll see the normal rise we would get in a normal year,” he said.
“We’re probably not going to see much relief — if we get any at all — at least until the late parts of November, which will allow this river system to continue to fall a little bit.”

Pope said meteorologists expect La Niña chances to begin decreasing in the January to March time frame, “Which, if that’s the case, will ease up things.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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