Connecting Waterpeople

Spotlight on: The Mississippi River water crisis

  • Spotlight on: The Mississippi River water crisis

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H2o Building Services
H2O Building Services is one of the UK’s leading providers of commercial water management and consultancy services. With unparalleled expertise in carrying out water audits, we specialise in reducing water saving businesses money on their water bills
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When it comes to the climate emergency, one of the biggest problems that affects most, if not all, nations around the world is water stress and scarcity. Some countries have too much water, some countries don’t have enough… and such circumstances are only expected to increase and become more severe as time goes on and global temperatures continue to rise.

In the US, expert scientists believe that many parts of the country will see their freshwater resources reduce by as much as a third within the next 50 years or so, driven by population growth that will increase demand, and climate change which will affect water basins that rely on rainfall and which will see water evaporate from streams and reservoirs.

The effects of increasing demand for water supplies and the drop in available resources are already being felt across much of the country. The Colorado River, for example, once stretched all the way from the Rockies to the Gulf of California, but it now peters out well before it reaches the sea… the result of climate change and overuse.

In fact, the Colorado River has seen its average annual flow drop by 19 per cent compared to the average seen in the 20th century, with models now predicting that river flow could reduce by as much as 55 per cent come the year 2100.

And now the Mississippi River has been hitting the headlines, with photos and satellite imagery showing that the region has been facing its worst drought in at least ten years, with the waterway and its tributaries reaching record lows in October.

The US Drought Monitor now shows that drought conditions have expanded once again across the midwest and the south, with half of the contiguous US now experiencing moderate or worse drought, which is the third-highest value of 2022 and the highest it’s been since March, CNN reports.

The midwest has, in fact, seen the biggest deterioration, with around 60,000 square miles now in drought. Nationwide, over 134 million people are affected by drought, the highest percentage of the population since 2016.

The Drought Tracker also indicated that topsoil moisture is continuing to dry out across some parts of the Corn Belt and the Ohio Valley, while much of the Mississippi Valley is now seeing very low levels of deeper soil moisture… all of which is taking its toll not only on the Mississippi River itself but waterways that flow into it as well.

Satellite imagery from the National Weather Service shows how rivers are receding from their banks as time goes on, with the Platte River in Nebraska (which flows right across the state and connects to the Mississippi) almost completely dried up in some parts of the stretch. Near Kearney, for example, it has all but vanished and now only dry sand can be seen instead of water.

The Mississippi in drought

The historically low water levels now being seen along the Mississippi River are having big impacts for both businesses and people, causing disruption in many areas, including transportation and recreation, as well as affecting water quality and drinking supplies.

Last month (October), the Coast Guard reported that eight barges had found themselves stuck in the sand and mud, running aground because of low water levels. The Army Corps of Engineers was also brought in to dredge various parts of the river to help prevent further logistical disruption.

Barges will also be forced to carry up to 20 per cent less cargo than they would normally so as not to hang too low in the water, which will put additional pressure on supply chains and product delivery.

The number of barges has also had to be reduced, with no more than 25 ships moved on each trip because of narrower channels, compared to the 30 or 40 that would have travelled in previous years, according to the news source.

The health risks

What is also now being seen is saltwater starting to infiltrate drinking supplies, such as in Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana, with around 3,000 residents now facing health risks because of contaminated water.

Apparently, those with high blood pressure or heart health conditions have been warned by health officials not to drink water, although it is still reportedly safe for people without health concerns. It is also safe to continue to bathe using water supplies.

Speaking to CNN, Kirk Lepine – Plaquemines Parish president – said: “It’s salty. You can smell the salt content. It’s not suitable for people who have health risks.”

This intrusion of saltwater has been linked to water from the Gulf of Mexico making its way into the water system because of plunging water levels in the Mississippi River. Slower water flow means that it’s harder for the channel to keep saltwater out.

Heath Jones, emergency manager with the US Army Corps of Engineers District of Louisiana, explained that water elevation of the river is typically between five and six feet on average but because of prolonged drought, New Orleans elevation is now at just 2.3 feet.

Water flow rates are now significantly lower, moving at around 300,000 cubic feet per second… down from the 700,000 cubic feet it would usually be.

This slow-moving water means that saltwater can start to make its way upstream on the bottom of the river, mixing fresh and saltwater together and affecting drinking supplies.

To help tackle the problem, an underwater levee was recently built to help limit the amount of saltwater creeping upstream. Furthermore, two reverse osmosis machines have been installed on the east and west banks of the river to help remove salt from the water.

Mr Lepine also noted that the region is still waiting for significant rainfall to help resolve the situation… but this will need to be a major rain event in order to bring about lasting change, given the size of the river itself.

More businesses should consider undertaking a Water Audit in order to identify areas where water consumption can be reduced,as on average 40 per cent can be saved which will ease the burden on a valuable diminishing resource.

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