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“Whiplash” Levels on the Mississippi River

The Mississippi River levels have gone from too high for shipping in the spring to too low this summer. Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, says river levels have given shippers whiplash since Fall 2022.

Steenhoek; “Last fall, we had historically-low water levels on the Mississippi River and, all of a sudden, the pendulum swung quite profoundly to high-water levels this late April and early May. And that was largely attributed to a significant amount of snowfall in the Upper Midwest in the late winter, early spring. So that resulted in quite high elevated water levels in a very short period and closed the river for a period of time for barge transportation.”

Even with the higher water levels in the spring, Steenhoek was vocal about the threat of low levels returning to the Mississippi. He says; “Given the fact that most of the farm ground in the Midwest and Plains States is still considerably dry, even with that snowfall that we had, very little of that got absorbed into the ground because the ground is still very cold at that time of the year. It wouldn’t require that pronounced of a dry period to all of a sudden return us back to low-water conditions on the inland waterway system, and that, unfortunately, has happened. And so, we’re seeing water levels are back considerably low when you compare it to the last year, which was a very low-water year, a very dry year.”

Some stretches along the Mississippi River are even lower than they were last year, and Steenhoek says it’ll be a challenge to recharge those levels.

He says; “At various spots on the river, we’re either lower than we were at this time last year or comparable to where we were last year, so that doesn’t portend well as we look in the future during the time when we need to be transporting a lot of soybeans and grain during harvest season, which is our key export window. A lot can happen between now and the fall. But one of the things that’s just continually a reminder to all of us is that you can have some rain that occurs, but so much of that is absorbed into the ground when you have such dry conditions. So that’s going to take a persistent amount of precipitation to turn this trendline around to a positive direction, and that’s something we’re certainly hopeful for.”

The current river levels are quite different from more typical years according to Steenhoek. “Yeah, we’re about six feet lower in St. Louis than we were at this time last year. Memphis is just marginally higher,” he says. “Normally, when you look back at 2021 or 2020, at both of those locations, we’re about 20 feet higher at both of those locations this time of the year in 2021 and 2020. So, it just really kind of shows what kind of departure the last couple of years have been.”

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