USDA Meteorologist Eric Lubebehusen says the intensity and coverage of the drought has increased as a result of more dry weather. Some level of drought now covers 62.7% of the continental U.S. – double the extent of drought last year, when the drought was centered on Oklahoma and Texas.
Since spring this year’s drought has cut a swath across most of the Midwest. However, because this drought has shown no signs of loosing its grip, the National Drought Mitigation Center’s Mark Svoboda said this week it’s difficult to contextualize it historically.
The next few months, Svoboda says, will be critical in determining if the ag industry faces another harsh growing season. Snow in the Rocky Mountains and across the Midwest would ease conditions heading into the spring, he says. This is actually a time of year, according to Svoboda, where nature can take a break; there isn’t a great demand for water by plants, so moisture can be stored in the ground and in snow pack. He says the current situation isn’t favorable. Due to the lack of rain in September, October and November, Svoboda says the winter wheat crop is getting hammered. But he says there is time to make up for the lack of moisture; if we’re still this dry at the end of January, he says there will be a lot more concern.
Lack of moisture is a concern on the Mississippi River as well, where water levels are falling. If they get too low, the river could reach the point where it’s too shallow for the barges that carry food, fuel and other commodities, at which point experts say the economic losses could climb into the billions if it’s closed for a lengthy period. Not only would the shipping and grain industries feel the pain of such a closure, but consumers could see higher grocery and utility bills. Don Sweeney with the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis says higher prices would be inevitable.
The biggest area of concern is a 180-mile stretch between the confluences of the Missouri River near St. Louis and the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois. A lack of rain has squeezed the channel from its normal 1000-foot or more width to just a few hundred feet. The depth of the river is 15 to 20 feet less than normal, about 13 feet deep in many places. At a depth of 9 feet, rock pinnacles at two locations make it difficult, if not impossible, for barges to pass. National Weather Service hydrologists predict the river will reach that nine-foot mark by December 9th.
The situation has been made worse by an Army Corps of Engineers decision to reduce the outflow from an upper Missouri River dam in South Dakota. There the drought has intensified, and in order to ease the effects of the drought in the northern Missouri River basin the flow is gradually being cut by more than 2/3rds by December 11th.
In response to that decision, a large group of organizations and lawmakers asked the President last week to direct USACE to release as much water as necessary from the Missouri River reservoirs to preserve a nine-foot channel on the Mississippi River. White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that the Obama Administration shares the specific concerns from lawmakers and others about the decreasing water level of the Mississippi and is exploring all possible options. For their part, USACE vowed to speed efforts, as quickly as the law will allow, to keep the river open.
But on Friday, U.S. Senators representing states along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers elevated the request for USACE to manage water levels on the Missouri River to avoid a catastrophic economic problem on the Mississippi River. In a letter – the senators urged the President to issue an emergency directive to permit additional water flows from the Missouri River reservoirs to maintain navigation on the Mississippi. Without emergency action – the senators say commercial navigation on the middle Mississippi River between St. Louis, Missouri and Cairo, Illinois will be severely impaired as early as mid-December.
Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley says the Mississippi River needs a coordinated effort to ensure navigation doesn’t come to a halt; such a major interruption in commercial activity would ultimately impact jobs throughout the region, and Grassley says steps can be taken to prevent it.
Grassley signed the letter to the President along with Tom Harkin of Iowa, Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Mark Pryor and John Boozman of Arkansas, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Mary Landrieu and David Vitter of Louisiana, Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker of Mississippi, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sherrod Brown of Ohio.