Rising to the challenge: Low water on the Mississippi River

Coast Guard Cutter Chippewa crewmembers drag buoys alongside a 24-foot flat-bottom boat across the Mississippi River. The Chippewa’s area of responsibility runs from mile marker 918 on the Ohio River to mile marker 981 in Cairo, Ill. Photo courtesy of Jeff L. Yates.

Coast Guard Cutter Chippewa crewmembers drag buoys alongside a 24-foot flat-bottom boat across the Mississippi River. The Chippewa’s area of responsibility runs from mile marker 918 on the Ohio River to mile marker 981 in Cairo, Ill. Photo courtesy of Jeff L. Yates.

A version of this story oriinally appeared at Coast Guard Heartland and was written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Ayla Kelley.

The rise and fall of river water levels is a constant, impacted by flooding and drought. It’s something those who work on or around the river contend with on a regular basis. This year, rivers throughout the Midwest region are experiencing record low water levels and natural relief through the winter may be minimal. As water levels drop, the channels in which ships and barges travel shrink in width and depth, creating difficulties for shipping commerce. The U.S. Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers and shipping industries are working together to adapt to the pressure of keeping the Mississippi River open for commerce and the public.

Petty Officer 1st Class Eli North oversees his crewmembers to ensure they are safely removing buoys from the shore on the Mississippi River. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Seaman Paul Jirasek.

Petty Officer 1st Class Eli North oversees his crewmembers to ensure they are safely removing buoys from the shore on the Mississippi River. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Seaman Paul Jirasek.

After experiencing an historic flood in 2011, the American heartland is now facing low water levels not seen since 1988. This greatly impacts the industries that rely on the rivers to ship products across the country. To keep the channels as wide and deep as possible, the Army Corps of Engineers monitors river levels and dredges in targeted areas. It is then up to Coast Guard river tenders to mark the navigable waterways so industry and the public can travel safely and effectively.

There are at least five Coast Guard cutters working in the major rivers marking and maintaining navigation. These cutters place about 3,000 buoys and service more than 500 navigation beacons along 10,300 miles of inland navigable waterways. To perform this task, the Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers must work closely with industry partners to ensure where they dredge and mark channels is benefiting commerce in the best possible way.

“The Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers and river towing industry have worked together to ensure the safe navigation of commercial traffic on the Inland River System in order to mitigate the low water effects of this drought on our nation’s inland waterways and economy,” said Rear Adm. Roy A. Nash, commander of the 8th Coast Guard District. “The Coast Guard keeps mariners informed of changes and restrictions in the river via broadcast and local notice to mariners. Industry is, of course, the key reporting source for many of these changes and has been exceptionally vigilant during this challenging period.”

With the use of the Waterways Action Plan, created between the Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers and industry, options such as draft and tow size controls have kept the commerce flowing until water conditions can improve. However, with a lack of rain and low snowfall this winter some closures have occurred on the Mississippi River; these closures are designed to have the smallest impact on commerce.

Petty Officer 2nd Class William Rogers, a marine science technician from Sector Upper Mississippi River, conducts a harbor patrol along the Mississippi River outside of St. Louis. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Ayla Kelley.

Petty Officer 2nd Class William Rogers, a marine science technician from Sector Upper Mississippi River, conducts a harbor patrol along the Mississippi River outside of St. Louis. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Ayla Kelley.

“Safety is our primary focus,” said Capt. Byron Black, commander of Sector Upper Mississippi River. “We have prudent controls in place with goals of trying to prevent an incident with negative impacts.”

“We recognize the incredible importance of our collective work in keeping commerce flowing on the rivers and protecting our nation’s economic prosperity. We commit to working closely with the Army Corps of Engineers and our industry partners to do all we can to ensure the safety of those on the rivers, while facilitating commerce to the maximum extent we safely can,” added Nash.

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