How low can it go? River headed back down again

Published 12:06 am Friday, November 30, 2012

LAUREN WOOD/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — A tree limb and rock piles lie on the exposed banks of the Mississippi River as a boater drives under the bridge Thursday evening. The river was at 11.34 feet Thursday, but is expected to drop back down near seven feet in December.

NATCHEZ — Although the Mississippi River at Natchez started 2012 just 3.5 feet shy of flood stage at 44.64 feet, it will finish the year at its lowest levels since the late 1980s.

After months of hovering at seasonally low levels due to drought across the Midwest, the river is projected to fall to 7.5 feet at Natchez by Christmas. Thursday, the river was at 11.34 feet, whereas according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers river gages information service, its historic normal stage for Thursday’s date is 19.20 feet.

National Weather Service Hydrologist Marty Pope said Mississippi has received enough rain to relieve the drought that has plagued much of the country.

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“But it wasn’t enough to help the big river,” Pope said.

The river fell to 7.66 feet at Natchez in August, and at the time portions of the navigation channel upstream had to be closed. The channels have since been reopened, though officials upriver have voiced concerns it will become necessary again.

In Natchez, the river never closed, and Vidalia Dock and Storage Owner Carla Jenkins said she doesn’t anticipate anything to change should the river fall as low as predicted.

“The lowest I have ever seen the river is 6.5 feet, and we kept operating then,” she said.

Where tow operations might be affected is, if navigation starts to be obstructed upstream, boats will not be allowed to move as many barges at once, and they will not be able to load them as fully, Jenkins said.

“When you are used to loading to 1,800 cubic feet and you have to cut it down to 1,200 just so your barge doesn’t run aground, that is where you start to lose money,” she said.

Even though the drought has broken in the south, the system of sources that feeds the Mississippi River draws from a huge geographic area, and low river levels in the Midwest — particularly along the Missouri River — translate to drops in the river levels here.

“When you look at the last six months’ departure of normal rainfall for the Midwest, it shows that anywhere across Iowa and Nebraska and into Kansas and parts of Missouri, those areas are running anywhere from 50 percent of normal rainfall, and in some areas in Nebraska have only 10-25 percent of their rainfall,” Pope said. “That is going to translate to lower river levels.”

The only thing that is going to turn that around is some significant rain.

But Pope said most weather models in the short and long term don’t project any serious precipitation in the next couple of weeks.

“I am hoping that because of the time of year, we will start to see some systems move across the (Missouri River) valley, but in the short term it doesn’t look that good,” he said.