The drought on the Mississippi River was big news when barges ran aground, receding waters revealed new historical artifacts, and river traffic came to a brief standstill in October.
But the drought wasn’t over when the canal reopened.
Barges have only been able to transport goods down the historically shallow Mississippi because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is constantly sweeping the bottom of the river.
USACE St. “It’s been a couple of months of pretty intense management,” Lou Dell’Orco, chief of operations and readiness for the Louis area, told Insider.
USACE maintains a nine-foot-deep channel down the Mississippi River so ships and barges can travel freely.
To keep this channel open, Dell’Orco had to bring in extra combs from other regions.
At some points, the three ships operate 24/7, the St. Louis area, dropping the suction pipes to the bottom of the river, pulling material from the riverbed and transporting it via pipes to designated disposal sites – for example, a “giant vacuum cleaner” in Dell’Orco’s words.
“Our crawl could fill an Olympic pool about every hour,” he said.
Dell’Orco said it’s normal for USACE to keep one scan running 24/7 throughout the season, but not two or three.
A four-day break during a cold snap around Christmas gave the crew time to do minor maintenance on the ships. Dell’Orco reported that one of the combs was leaving the area at the time, and the second was in St. She said she broke up with Louis.
More rain and snow have improved conditions on the river, and the end of the crisis is on the horizon.
“Trade is moving forward with no drought-related restrictions,” Deb Calhoun, senior vice president of the Waterways Council, a group advocating for modern waterway infrastructure, told Insider in an email. “From now on, we’ll watch for high water, which is something that normally happens this time of year.”
Dell’Orco expects its teams to stop scanning by the end of January.
Drought damage control in numbers: 3 dredges that suck the riverbed 24/7
Since July, Dell’Orco has been to St. Louis area has mined about 9 million cubic meters of material from the bottom of the river in about 70 locations. In a normal year, they would only dredge 3 to 4 million cubic meters.
That’s more than 2,700 Olympic swimming pool materials removed from the river floor, compared to just 1,000 Olympic swimming pools in a regular season.
Dell’Orco added that this year’s screening season is also lasting at least 100 days longer than usual.
He estimates it cost about $6.5 million to run two scans over the course of a month. Get a third scan and he said USACE is looking at $10 million a month.
Climate change could make droughts like this year more common
The last time Mississippi fell to such extreme levels and required so much management was in 2012.
No studies have directly linked these specific drought events to climate change. But scientists are confident that rising temperatures will increase drought in most parts of the United States.
In this case, one summer’s record heatwaves scorched some of the river’s water, and then a sudden drought that hit the Ohio and Missouri river valleys robbed the Mississippi of the snowdrift that usually fed it.
AccuWeather meteorologist Paul Pastelok previously told Insider it’s unclear how climate change will affect the Mississippi River in the long run. It is possible, however, that the river’s drought cycle will accelerate.
For example, instead of once every 10 to 15 years, drought may hit the river every five to 10 years.
Forecast maps show Mississippi drought may end soon
Much of the Mississippi River watershed is still drought-class, including downstream areas that help farmers transport grain for export, according to US Drought Watch.
However, this may end in the next few weeks. Forecasts from the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center offer hope that drought will ease over much of the Mississippi River basin in February.
Above-average rainfall in the northern Midwest can help replenish the river throughout the month. That’s when Calhoun and Dell’Orco will be on the alert for flooding.
After that, forecasts show there will be no drought conditions in the Mississippi River basin for the first time in months.
This will give Dell’Orco’s crew time to perform maintenance on their ships before the rescan season begins in July.
“It’s really a shorter maintenance season. You have time from March to mid-June,” 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 attention.”
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