The Mississippi River drought was big news as barges ran aground, receding waters revealed new historical artifacts, and river traffic briefly halted in October.
But the drought did not end with the reopening of the canal.
Barges were only able to transport cargo in the historically shallow Mississippi because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constantly sucked the bottom of the river.
“It’s been a couple of months of pretty intense management,” Lou Dell’Orco, USACE St. Louis District Chief of Operations and Readiness, told Insider.
The USACE maintains a nine-foot-deep channel on the Mississippi River, so ships and barges can travel freely.
To keep this channel open, Dell’Orco had to bring in additional dredges from other districts.
At times, three vessels were operating 24/7, traveling to chokepoints in the St. Louis area, dropping their suction tubes to the bottom of the river, inhaling material from the bed from the river and transporting them by tubes to designated disposal sites – like “a giant vacuum cleaner”, in the words of Dell’Orco.
“Our dredge can fill an Olympic-sized pool about every hour,” he said.
It’s normal for the USACE to keep a dredge on the job 24/7 throughout the season, but not two or three, Dell’Orco said.
A four-day break during a cold spell around Christmas gave crews time to carry out minor maintenance work on the ships. One of the dredges left the district around this time and the second left St. Louis last week, Dell’Orco said.
More rain and snow have improved conditions on the river, and it looks like an end to the crisis is on the horizon.
“Trade moves without any drought restrictions,” Deb Calhoun, senior vice president of the Waterways Council, a group that champions modern waterway infrastructure, told Insider. “We will then watch for high water, which normally happens at this time of year.”
Dell’Orco expects its crews to be able to stop dredging by the end of January.
Drought damage control in numbers: 3 dredges vacuuming the bottom of the river 24/7
Since July, the St. Louis District has dredged about 9 million cubic meters of material from the river bottom in about 70 locations, Dell’Orco said. In a normal year, they would only dredge 3-4 million cubic meters.
That’s more than 2,700 Olympic pools with materials removed from the river bottom, compared to just 1,000 Olympic pools in a normal season.
This year, the dredging season has also extended by at least 100 days longer than normal, Dell’Orco added.
He estimates that it costs about $6.5 million to run two dredges for a month. Add a third dredge, and he said USACE was looking at $10 million a month.
Climate change could make droughts like this year’s more common
The last time Mississippi sank to such low levels and required so much management was in 2012.
No research has directly linked these particular drought events to climate change. But scientists are confident that rising temperatures will amplify droughts across much of the United States.
In this case, a summer of record-breaking heat waves wiped out some of the river’s water, then a flash drought hit the Ohio and Missouri valleys, robbing the Mississippi of the snowpack that feeds it. habitually.
It’s unclear how climate change will affect the Mississippi River in the long term, AccuWeather meteorologist Paul Pastelok previously told Insider. But it is possible that the drought cycle of the river is accelerating.
Instead of every 10 to 15 years, for example, drought could hit the river every five to 10 years.
Forecast maps show Mississippi drought may end soon
Much of the Mississippi River Basin is still classified as drought, including lower regions that help farmers transport grain for export, according to the US Drought Monitor.
However, this could end in the next few weeks. Forecasts from the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center offer hope that the drought will ease across much of the Mississippi Basin in February.
Above average rainfall in the northern Midwest could help replenish the river throughout the month. That’s when Calhoun and Dell’Orco will be on the lookout for flooding.
After that, forecasts show there could be no drought conditions in the Mississippi Basin for the first time in months.
This would give the Dell’Orco team time to service their vessel before the dredging season resumes in July.
“It’s definitely a shorter maintenance season. You have March to mid-June to prepare for it,” Dell’Orco said.
That shouldn’t be a problem, he added. But still, “it’s a 90-year-old ship. It needs a lot of TLC.”
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