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Mega Drought of 2012 Shuts Down Mississippi River
Barges can't navigate down the Mississippi until water levels rise.


(Columbus, KY August 22, 2012) - The heart of America’s inland waterway system has been dealt a severe blow from the Mega Drought this week. Just outside Memphis Tennessee, the U.S. Corps of Engineers closed the mighty river to traffic along a 11 mile section of river just south of that city.

As of Monday, August 21, over 100 barges and private boats are stopped and waiting to see how long it will take to reopen the river. A typical barge tow will consist of 15 barges being pushed by a river tug boat. Each barge may be 35 ft. wide and 200 ft. long.

The average barge tow of 15 units, three across and five deep, will move 22,000 tons of cargo per unit. A single 15 barge tow is equivalent to about 225 railroad cars or 870 tractor trailer trucks.

To move the annual cargo on the River by some other mode of transportation would take an additional 6.3 million rail cars or 25.2 million trucks

This system of moving bulk cargo is well suited for the movement of coal and oil. The inland river system handles 630 million tons of bulk cargo each year.

(1) Coal. This is the largest commodity by volume moving on the river. The nation’s electric utility industry depends on the rivers for about 20% of the coal needed to burn in order to produce electricity.  

(2) Petroleum is the next largest resource group to be shipped on the river. This includes crude oil, jet fuel, heavy fuel oils, and asphalt.

(3) Additional bulk commodities include aggregates, such as stone, sand, and gravel used in construction; chemicals, including fertilizers; metal ores, minerals, and heavy construction products such as steel. 

The drought (lack of rainfall) has decreased the flow of waters running off into the collective watersheds of the Mississippi River. West Kentucky averages between 50 inches to 70 inches a year of rainfall.

Charles Berryhill, a local Hickman County farmer, made the comment that this year, so far, his fields have received just 12 inches of rainfall.

Due to several groundings of barges this past two weeks, the U.S. Corps of Engineers made the decision to close the River until safer water levels would permit normal commerce to take place.

Generally, the river runs up to as much as a mile wide in some spots like Columbus where the water is deep. Along the east Kentucky side of the River, depths of running water can go as deep as 75 ft.
Old timers here in this small river town of 300 talk of the last great drought of 1988 and how the river was closed in stretches.  But these old timers are quick to add that, “this is a year (2012) unlike anything in their lives due to the one-two punch of no rain and extreme heat.”

If the river is closed for more than a few days or at worse several weeks, there is the growing specter of national security issues coming to the forefront of American daily discussion as goods do not make it to the big city shopping centers and grocery stores.

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