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Lower Mississippi River Basin Special Drought Webinar

Event Date
November 18, 2022
Event Time
10:00 am - 11:30 am

About This Webinar: 

Drought conditions continue to impact the  Lower Mississippi River Basin, with over 73% of the Lower Mississippi watershed in moderate to extreme drought (D1–D3) and river levels recently hitting record lows in some areas. To provide the latest information on current drought conditions, impacts felt across economic sectors, and short-term and long-range outlooks, NOAA’s National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) in partnership with NOAA’s National Weather Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, hosted a webinar focused on the drought in the Lower Mississippi River corridor. The goal of the webinar was to raise awareness of the impacts on communities and sectors due to the current low river levels.

Key Webinar Takeaways:

Navigation along the Mississippi River became very difficult, and at times impossible, as the River reached near-record to record-low water levels in September and October 2022. These low river levels were caused by several factors including a multi-year drought in the Missouri River Basin and a more recent ‘flash drought’ in the Ohio River Basin. Recent improvements to drought conditions, along with actions taken by the U.S. Army Corps and the U.S. Coast Guard, have allowed for resumed but restricted navigation in recent weeks. Recent river forecasts suggest river levels will remain low, but not as extreme as was experienced in October while beginning a seasonal rise into winter.


Welcome and Opening Remarks 

Speaker: Veva Deheza: Executive Director, National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Speaker: COL Andrew Pannier: Deputy Commander, Mississippi Valley Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

  • This special webinar was developed in response to record low river levels in the Mississippi and significant impacts to a wide range of communities and sectors. 
  • That National Integrated Information System (NIDIS) is an interagency program, established by Congress in 2006 by Public Law, with the mission is to enable the nation to move from a reactive to a more proactive approach to managing drought risks and impacts.
  • A large part of NIDIS’ mission is accomplished in sharing authoritative and timely information through webinars like this.
  • It is important for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to communicate what actions are being taken to keep the river open.  



Drought Impacts Along the River Corridor

U.S. Coast Guard Update

Speaker: CAPT Eric Carrero, Director of Western Rivers and Waterways, U.S. Coast Guard Eighth District

  • The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) is fully committed to safeguarding the marine transportation system and keeping these important waterways open.
  • Since mid-October, the Coast Guard has transited 2,000+ miles and verified 1,000+ buoys to mark safe waters for navigation.
  • Some improvements have been observed in the last three days. However, challenges to maritime transportation still remain.
  • Industry has been able to ease restrictions largely because of USACE actions, such as dredging. 
  • The USCG continues to adapt and respond, in close collaboration with the industry and USACE, to move resources where they are most needed under current low water conditions. 
  • The river is currently open and traffic is moving, although some restrictions are in place imposed by industry.


Low Water Level Impacts on the Transport of Agriculture

Speaker: Brad Rippey, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Office of the Chief Economist

  • The barge crisis along the Mississippi River appears to have peaked with near-record to record-low water levels in September and October, as rates and traffic have come back closer in line with historical averages in recent weeks.
  • Still, the timing of this year’s low water was poor for grain and oilseed transport, as the corn and soybean harvests advanced quickly during the nation’s driest September since 1956 and driest September–October since 1987. During the droughts of 1988 and 2012, lowest water levels occurred earlier in the year, during July or August, before harvest.
  • Autumn is when the river is usually at its lowest point, and this also coincided with northbound movements of fertilizer and other agricultural products, leading to higher prices.


Impacts to Navigational Industry

Speaker: Paul Rohde, Waterways Council, Inc.

  • Transportation via river barges is a preferred form of transportation by shippers, and there is a strong focus on river safety by the river transportation industry.
  • This year led to unprecedented disruption to river traffic and limited the ability for barges to get to their destination, which likely caused billions of dollars in impacts. In addition, a barge’s capacity is reduced by around 30% when there are restrictions in draft.
  • River closures for dredging are required to keep the navigation channel open, but can also result in long lines while waiting for particular river stretches to open.
  • The U.S. Coast Guard has been essential in maintaining safe river navigation by marking dredged navigation channels with buoys.
  • Conditions have recently improved compared to October, where nearly 3,000 barges were waiting, equivalent to about 210,000 trucks of goods. Boats are now able to pass, although movement is still slow due to some dredging efforts.
  • The industry is resilient and is working closely as a community with the USACE and the Coast Guard to keep commodities moving as much as possible. 



How Did We Get Here? A Look Back at Past Conditions in the Basin

Speaker: Don Duncan, U.S. Army Corp of Engineers 

Speaker: Victor Murphy, NOAA National Weather Service (NWS)

The Mississippi River Basin Watershed includes the Upper and Lower Mississippi River Basin, Ohio River Basin, Missouri River Basin, and Arkansas-White-Red River Basin.
Flow contribution to the Mississippi River Basin watershed. Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mississippi Valley Division.
  • The Mississippi River Basin covers about 40% of the continental United States.
  • 90% of the flow on the Lower Mississippi comes from the Missouri, Ohio, and Upper Mississippi basins, with 60% of the flow at Cairo, IL, coming from the Ohio River Basin.
  • May through September is the wettest part of the year for these three basins.
  • Climatologically, fall is the season when the Lower Mississippi River is usually at its lowest.  
  • The 2022 event is similar to those of 2000 and 2012, but not as bad as 1988, which actually bottomed out in July.
  • A multi-year drought in the Missouri River Basin over the last 2–3 years has led to below normal flows from St. Louis upstream.
  • Short-term drought across the basin since June has reduced flows on the Upper Mississippi and exacerbated ongoing low flows on the Missouri.
  • Precipitation from tropical activity was lower and later than expected, even with Hurricane Nicole’s impacts in mid-November. 2022 was the first year since 2016 without a tropical cyclone landfalling in the Gulf of Mexico west of the Florida Panhandle.
  • A four to six week “flash drought," or rapid onset drought, in the Ohio River Basin from mid-September to late-October was the final straw in this overall cumulative impact event.



Drought Response Actions

Speaker: COL Andrew Pannier, Deputy Commander, Mississippi Valley Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

  • Given current forecasts, the Mississippi Valley Division can maintain a 9-foot channel, even when the Missouri flows drop off, but there will be temporary closures for extended periods of 12 to 72 hours for focused dredging.
  • Missouri River flow reductions will begin on November 19; impacts will start on the mainstem Mississippi River around November 29 with full impacts being felt in mid-December.
  • At -5.0 ft (St. Louis gage) extended closures due to dredging are expected along the entire reach from St. Louis to Cairo and rock pinnacles become a factor at a stage of -7.0 ft.
  • Communication and coordination efforts are integral to the USACE. This includes daily coordination externally, such as with the navigation industry and the U.S. Coast Guard, and internally. 
  • In addition to efforts to keep the Channel open, such as by dredging, the USACE is also addressing the concerns of a saltwater wedge by constructing an underwater sill in the channel to stop progression of saltwater. 
  • One area of focus by the USACE is the concern of potential channel obstruction by the underwater rock pinnacles located at River Mile 41–46.
  • For more information, visit the the USACE Mississippi Valley Division website.

The Mississippi River at Cairo, Illinois in 2011 and 2022

2011 (High Water)

High water levels on the Mississippi River at Cairo, Illinois, in 2011.

2022 (Low Water) 

Low water levels on the Mississippi River at Cairo, Illinois, in 2022.
Photos of the Mississippi River at Cairo, Illinois, during high water in 2011 (top) and low water in 2022 (bottom), showing the dynamic challenges of flood and drought on the Mississippi. There was a 56-foot difference between the high and low river levels at Cairo. Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mississippi Valley Division.



Where Are We going? Short-Term and Long-Range Outlooks for the Lower Basin

Speaker: Jon Gottschalck, Climate Prediction Center, NOAA/NWS

  • La Niña conditions continue in the Pacific Ocean, as shown by both oceanic and atmospheric conditions.
  • La Niña is favored to remain in place through the winter 2022–2023.
  • The winter outlooks show above-normal precipitation is most likely for the northern Rockies, Upper Missouri River Basin, Upper Mississippi River Basin (lower odds), Ohio Valley, and Great Lakes. If verified, this would be favorable for easing drought conditions along the Mississippi River.
  • Below-normal precipitation is likely for the southern Plains, far lower Mississippi Valley, and Southeast where drought development is possible by the end of February 2023.
  • For more information on climate outlooks, visit the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center.
According to the drought outlook for December–February, drought development is likely for the southern Plains, far low Mississippi Valley, and Southeast.
Seasonal (3-month) drought outlook for December 2022–February 2023, showing where drought is expected to persist, develop, improve, or be removed. Source: NWS Climate Prediction Center, via


Speaker: David Welch, Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center, NOAA/NWS

  • The lowest levels on the Mississippi River climatologically occur in October and November. River stages tend to start to increase in December and beyond.
  • In fall 2022, historically low water levels were measured at Cairo, IL; Memphis, TN; and Greensville, MS. These exceeded the previous records set in 1988, but did not last as long as the 1988 low river levels. 
  • Recent precipitation has been average to below average across the basin, but not extremely low. Recent river forecasts suggest river levels will remain low, but not as extreme as was experienced in October while beginning a seasonal rise into winter.
  • For information on river forecasts in the Lower Mississippi, visit the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center. For information on river forecasts in the North Central region, visit the North Central River Forecast Center.



Question and Answer, Discussion

Speaker: Meredith Muth, NOAA/NIDIS




Speaker: Veva Deheza: Executive Director, NOAA/NIDIS

Relevant Resources and Additional Information: