Mississippi River’s low water levels send ripples through ag trade, global shipping

Dwindling water levels along the mighty Mississippi River are creating challenges for the U.S. agriculture industry and impacting global shipping market.

In a stark turn of events, water levels along the Mississippi River have plummeted by a staggering 20 feet since May, raising concerns that the agricultural industry and international trade are in for a challenging few months. Data from the U.S. Geological Survey paints a worrisome picture of what lies ahead.

The Mississippi River has long played a pivotal role in transporting key agricultural commodities southward, such as corn and soybeans. However, with the Mississippi’s water levels at an unprecedented low, freight costs have surged to nearly four times the usual rates.

But it is not just crops that rely on the Mississippi’s waterways. Dairy products, including raw milk, cheese, butter, and whey, also depend on the river for their transportation. As the River’s levels dwindle, barge traffic has been slowed down to maintain navigability.

Last year, when water levels similarly plummeted, the Army Corps of Engineers worked tirelessly, dredging the river for nearly 18 hours a day to keep the channel open. Now, as the Mississippi River faces another crisis, the agricultural community is holding its breath for a much-needed reprieve.

Thankfully, a glimmer of hope is on the horizon. A slow-moving weather system is poised to sweep across the nation’s midsection, offering the potential for significant rainfall.

According to U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) Meteorologist Brad Rippey, areas stretching from Montana and Wyoming eastward into the Upper Midwest and the Upper Great Lakes region may receive between one to three inches of rain. Additionally, parts of the Southeastern Plains and the Mid-South are likely to experience showers and locally severe thunderstorms, potentially delivering two to four inches of rainfall over the next five or six days. This rainfall could provide some respite for the ailing Mississippi River.

The consequences of low water levels extend beyond North American borders. The Panama Canal, a critical artery for international trade, has also been affected. Earlier this summer, a special advisory reduced the number of ships allowed through the canal from 36 to 32 due to the lower water levels in the lake that feeds the canal, which currently stands around seven percent below average. Although rain expected next month may restore normal passage rates, Rabobank predicts ongoing shipping delays and increased costs in the near term.