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On drought-hit Mississippi River, battle vs. sand

 In this Aug. 22, 2012 photograph, a river navigation buoy floats in the Mississippi River near a sandbar north of Greenville, Miss. Navigation marker...

Low Water Mississippi

In this Aug. 22, 2012 photograph, a river navigation buoy floats in the Mississippi River near a sandbar north of Greenville, Miss. Navigation marker...

Another day, another sandbar to clear on the drought-hit Mississippi River. It's become a routine as the harshest dry spell in decades in the heart of the U.S. farming region has sent waters worryingly low.
The Mississippi is one of the most vital routes for commerce in the country, and it is fed by the third-largest watershed in the world _ a large chunk of the U.S. and part of Canada.
In a good year, barges can ship up to 500 million tons of goods up and down the river. That includes 60 percent of the grain grown in the U.S., said Bob Anderson, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers.
One estimate put barge industry losses at $1 billion the last time the river was this low, in 1988.
Any time a section of the river closes temporarily _ as it has several times in August _ or barges have to carry lighter loads of grain, there's the potential for affecting consumers at home and overseas.
That's why dredges, which knock down shallow spots and clear the shipping channel, are so vital.
Aboard the Dredge Jadwin, crews are pumping enough material from the river bottom every day to cover a football field 40 feet (12 meters) deep with sand and Mississippi mud.
Dredging is a way of life because the river's upstream tributaries wash enormous amounts of silt each year down to the Gulf of Mexico.
But veterans like the Jadwin's quality control officer, Bobby Justice, say they've never seen the river quite like this.
"You're seeing sand right there that hasn't been visible since 1988," Justice said, pointing to one sandbar.
Navigation markers that mark channels also require constant adjustment to keep towboats and barges out of trouble zones. The buoys get displaced either by ships or the shifting river itself.
The strain on crews and machinery is considerable.
Kavanaugh Breazeale, a spokesman, said the corps is fighting money problems as well as the river. The corps is using emergency funds but is working on a tight budget because of the expense of dealing with last year's Mississippi flood.
Breazeale said the corps has three dredges similar to the Jadwin, each assigned to a different district along the hundreds of miles from Mississippi to Missouri, and has another type of dredge in lower Louisiana.
The corps also has recently awarded contracts for private operators to dredge river ports.
But for the long haul, the combined might of machines and human effort relies on one ultimate game-changer: rain in the Midwest.


Updated : 2021-07-25 18:54 GMT+08:00