UNDATED (CNN) - The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says this past July was the hottest ever for the U.S. since record-keeping began. And much of the nation is suffering through the worst drought since the mid-1950s. We already know what the lack of rain is doing to farmland, but what about the Mississippi River?
On the bridge of the Joseph Merrick Jones, Captain Gene Waller threads a string of barges nearly four football fields long up the shrunken Mississippi River. He says, "Well, I think it's a little shallow above that bridge, so I'm not gonna go my normal"
In his 28 years of piloting towboats for the canal barge company, he's never seen the Mississippi drop so far so fast. Just ahead he's heard the river's only nine feet deep. He sits nine feet three inches in the water.
He finds himself looking at the depth gauge all the time. He's got reason to be nervous. Over the last two weeks boats and barges have been running aground nearly every day. Cmdr. David Burns with the U.S. Coast Guard says, "We've probably had on the order of 15 to 20 different small incidents or groundings, some of them in the channel some of them on the outside of the channel. I would say that's probably certainly an increase from what we normally see."
And there are other problems. The giant American Queen has to let passengers off on a levy because the water is too shallow where it normally docks.
Huge areas of river bed sit exposed, looking like desert, causing one law maker to quip the Mississippi's got more beaches than Florida which would be funny if it wasn't about to cost us all.
You see the Mississippi moves all sorts of things we use a lot of like grain, oil, coal and steel. Daryl Wheeler, assistant port captain for Canal Barge Company says, "Everybody's having to lighten the loads up and knock the barges the size of the tows down."
So here's the math. If you want to raise the average barge one inch above the water, you've got to take off 17-tons of cargo. To raise it a foot, you're talking 200 tons.
And since, according to the American Waterways Operators, moving cargo by river is $11 a ton cheaper than by train or truck. The more that now has to be moved on land, well, the more the costs go up. Steven Barry says, "And, eventually, the consumer's gonna pay that price somewhere along the line."
Steven Barry with the Army Corps of Engineers answered the question that's on many people's minds, "Would the river be closed?" He responds, "Well, I think with the proactive stance the Corps taking I don't see the river actually closing."
That proactive stance includes building thousands of rock dykes that jut into the water all along the river. The water comes down stream and during the drought it's redirected, deflected into the center of the river. It makes the channel deeper and it scours out the silt."
But engineering can only do so much. The rest is up to nature. Just how much rain would it take to make the river right? Twenty inches on a regular and recurring basis.
That's not in the forecast. Long range predictions actually show the river dropping another two to three feet.
Which is why Capt. Waller and others on the Mississippi fear life could be about to hit bottom. He says, "Well, we'll just keep going till she quits moving."