Drought sends 'mighty Mississippi' river levels near record lows
An aerial photo of the Mississippi river shows sandy areas where water had been before the drought. The river's levels are now nearing record lows.
July 19th, 2012
04:02 PM ET

Drought sends 'mighty Mississippi' river levels near record lows

The "mighty Mississippi" has lost some of its might with the season's epic drought taking its toll on river levels, which are falling to near historic lows.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will spend nearly $7 million dredging in an attempt to keep ports operational and keep the river open for barge traffic in the coming weeks. River levels in Memphis have dropped to within three feet of their historic lows from the 1988 drought.

In just one year, the river has gone through extreme fluctuation. Last May, it was within a foot of its record-high crest because of massive flooding, and today it's 55 feet lower and experiencing historic lows due to drought.

Dramatic images taken from NASA’s Terra satellite show the swollen river in late April of last year compared with images from early July this year. The expanse of the water was over 3 miles wide in parts of Missouri and Arkansas as levees were blown up in order to help protect the town of Cairo, Illinois from flood waters. The image taken July 2012 this year shows a much different story with the river less than a half mile wide in spots.

NASA’s Terra satellite shows the Mississippi River late April 2011 compared with images from early July 2012.

New data from U.S. Drought Monitor issued Thursday shows the drought has worsened in the past week, and now ranks as the second worst drought in U.S. history over the lower 48 since records began in 1895.

Nearly 64% of the contiguous United States is now in moderate to exceptional drought, second only to the summer of 1934, the height of the dust bowl era. Nearly 40% of the corn crop is now considered in poor or very poor condition, and this went up a sharp 8% in only a week.

During the 2012 crop year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has designated 1,297 counties across 29 states as disaster areas, making all qualified farm operators in the areas eligible for low-interest emergency loans. And on Monday the USDA designated 39 additional counties in eight states as primary natural disaster areas due to damage and losses caused by drought and excessive heat.

A dozen states on Thursday were under some sort of heat advisory or warning, many of them over the worst-hit drought areas. The heat wave is expected to last through much of the weekend, which means conditions will likely continue to worsen over the coming weeks.

And the Army Corps said that the shrinking of the Mississippi means that saltwater is beginning to work its way upriver, which could threaten some water supplies.

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That's not unprecedented, and there's no current threat to water supplies, but officials are prepared to start building an underwater barrier to block the denser saltwater from moving further upstream, Corps spokesman Ricky Boyett said Friday. The Corps last had to do that in 1999, he said.

soundoff (272 Responses)
  1. Peter Greene

    Motto should be "out of money".

    July 20, 2012 at 1:36 am | Report abuse |
  2. So Cal

    $7 million for dredging is not a big deal. How is that news. They spend more than that regularly to dredge the Newport Harbor.

    July 20, 2012 at 1:55 am | Report abuse |
    • name

      Oh, so your upset the article isn't about Newport Harbor. !?

      July 20, 2012 at 7:17 am | Report abuse |
  3. TRUTHY FACTUAL SUPERIOR KNOW-IT-ALL KING

    look at me!

    July 20, 2012 at 2:35 am | Report abuse |
  4. Sara

    It it not about differences or "beliefs" really and FOR REAL the earth is DIEING! And we need to stop this outside inside bit; the earth is were we live not a controlled manmade environment. We are experiencing a crisis not of beliefs but ecology, science, famine and epic amnesia. KATRINA DEEPWATER HORIZON BIBLICAL FLOODING 80 PERCENT OF THE COUNTRY IN DROUGHT FAMINE from this year will be devastating. For a few psychpathstimes it is business as usual; corn future are up 30% and so they must be popping bottles in the club. Where is the outrage! I dont think we are doing anything to give us the paradigm shift we need.

    July 20, 2012 at 3:19 am | Report abuse |
  5. HIDE BEHIND

    de Toqueville once wrote of the american people that their form of democracy will somday make them as individuals worthless unto themselves, well he was wrong to some extent, they are in the main useless to anything or anybody, and are about as astute as well kept cattle where it concerns the hows and whys of what their nations existence is as it is today.
    The vast numbers of immigrants that came to these shores did not come out of political oppression they came to make money. and that holds true today more so than back theN.
    They live in a warmongering nation tjat does not respect the lives or humanity of even their own people. who are expendable in the eyes of its political svientificand military industrialist eyes.

    July 20, 2012 at 4:33 am | Report abuse |
  6. Bill S.

    Had we built the North American Water and Power Alliance, it would be no problem. We would have an abundance of everything and could feed the world for another century with food exports, with a huge balance of payments surplus like Kuwait, or the UAE.

    July 20, 2012 at 4:40 am | Report abuse |
  7. Ben

    Fishing anyone?

    July 20, 2012 at 8:05 am | Report abuse |
  8. CosmicC

    Well, you make absolutely no sense. Please stop shouting.

    July 20, 2012 at 9:26 am | Report abuse |
  9. Grumpster

    Time to break out my metal detector and find all of my lost fishing lures.

    July 20, 2012 at 9:44 am | Report abuse |
  10. J. D. Hunter

    How many times do we get to repeat this lesson?

    Drainage – Causes – Floods – and – Droughts.

    If you confine a river between walls the floods are higher. Water only goes one way: DOWN to the sea. After you've drained it off the land in the flood you've thrown it away. Then you don't have it in the dry spell.

    July 20, 2012 at 9:46 am | Report abuse |
  11. mary

    Yikes , wasn't it just last year when it was over flowing it's banks for hundreds of miles ?
    I love love rivers but always want my housing at least 200' above bank level .
    This year tho , ship navigation must be really tricky !

    July 20, 2012 at 11:59 am | Report abuse |
  12. Yep

    Obama is to blame for the drought! If there was a republican in the white house there wouldn't be a drought – there would be plenty of water!

    July 20, 2012 at 11:02 pm | Report abuse |
  13. trex

    ..........and the MOR ONIC Radical Right says GLOBAL WARMING................IS A HOAX...............................................right up to when the ocean is lapping at Denver.

    July 21, 2012 at 8:13 am | Report abuse |
  14. Christopher Swolanbals

    Luckily global warming is just a hoax created by socialist europeans, hippies and Al Gore.

    July 22, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
  15. pjoe

    Just a few months ago it was flooding. Oh well. Feast or famine.

    July 23, 2012 at 12:02 am | Report abuse |
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