Fickle river back up again

Published 12:06 am Friday, December 28, 2012

Ben Hillyer/The Natchez Democrat — The American Queen steamboat sits docked at Natchez Under-the-Hill as the sun sets behind the bridge Christmas day. River levels have climbed back up to the seasonal average.

NATCHEZ — The Mississippi River can be a fierce but sometimes fickle mistress.

For most of 2012, she was fickle. Falling from a high of 44.64 feet on the gauge in January to 7.68 feet in August. Though the river rose slightly during the autumn, it was again at low levels at 8.78 feet Dec. 10.

Since then, however, it has risen significantly — nearly 14 feet in three weeks — and is more or less at its historic normal stage for this date at just higher than 22 feet.

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The problem that caused the fall, a hard drought in most of the Midwest that sucked dry much of the Missouri River, which feeds into the Mississippi, has not really been alleviated, said National Weather Service Hydrologist Marty Pope.

“We are way dry in the western sector, the upper Mississippi, the Missouri River and even the Arkansas River,” he said. “The only thing on the Arkansas will be some of that snow melt.”

However, recent heavy rains in other areas that feed into the lower Mississippi River from the east have helped bring the river closer to normal levels.

“In the last 30 days, in the middle Ohio River Valley we have been above normal rainfall,” Pope said. “There has been rainfall in parts of the Ohio valley that range from 150 percent to 200 percent of normal rainfall — that is why we have more water than we have had before.”

One place where the low river levels have been felt the most is at the Sydney A. Murray Jr. Hydroelectric Station, which produces power in part based on the height difference between the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers and the amount of diversion flow from the Mississippi and Red rivers.

The plant generates electricity that is sold to a number of customers, including the Louisiana Electric Power Association, of which the City of Vidalia is a member. Vidalia receives royalty payments based on the total output of the plant each year, and low river levels resulting in declining royalties were cited as one reason for a city budget shortfall earlier this year.

“During the fall months, when the river was extremely low, our production was nowhere near our normal productivity,” said David Harris, the power generating station’s manager.

“With the recent rise in the last few days, we are producing more power, but it is much lower than it is normally this time of year.”

The plant is operating at approximately 40-percent capacity, Harris said, and during the low months the station’s staff did a lot of maintenance work to make sure the power-generating units would work when the water rose again.

“If the current rise will be sustained, it will be great,” Harris said.

The river can be expected to continue to rise approximately 3.5 to 4 feet over the next week, Pope said.

“Looking at the future, in the next seven days in the Ohio valley we could see another half inch or so of rain or an inch in the Tennessee River valley, which could help,” Pope said.

“We will see a crest at Cairo, Ill., on Dec. 29 or 30, and it takes some time to work its way down to Natchez, but then maybe that other rain will fill in behind it and keep the river from falling.”