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Another Economic Impact of Climate Change: Drought is Draining the Mississippi River

J. Mijin Cha

Despite some rain showers, over 60 percent of the country is still suffering from drought conditions and nearly a quarter is suffering from extreme or exceptional drought. We’ve detailed how this has impacted agriculture and ranching and over 60 percent of Iowa’s land is still classified as being in either extreme or exceptional drought. And, beyond the impact on crops, the prolonged drought is causing other significant economic costs. Currently, near record low river levels requires that the Army Corps of Engineers work non-stop to keep the Mississippi River passable for cargo ships and transport by dredging out 60,000 cubic yards of sediment each day.

The river conditions are forcing companies to decrease the number of barges on the river and the ones that are traveling up and down the river have decreased their loads. Even with these efforts, 60 vessels have run aground in the lower Mississippi since May. Plus, while the Corps has kept the main navigation channel open, harbors along the river have been closed. Four have closed so far and if the drought continues, eight more are likely to be closed- leaving 12 out of 19 harbors closed. These difficulties will increase transportation costs that will likely be passed on to consumers.

Besides impacting the 500 million tons of cargo that travels up and down the river annually, the low volume of water coming down the river is putting local water supplies at risk. The corps is building a dam of sediment to prevent a wedge of salt water creeping up the Mississippi from entering into local water supplies drawn from the river. The difficulties stemming from reduced river levels highlights how climate change will have impacts far beyond warmer temperatures. In fact, we’ve shown how states will bear a high economic cost, and low-lying states, like Mississippi, are already seeing the high costs of climate change.

There is no doubt that adapting to climate change in and of itself will be a high cost. However, this cost is exacerbated substantially by the chronic underfunding of infrastructure repair and upgrade. A recent Urban Institute report concluded that we would need to invest $2 trillion rebuild our infrastructure—and that’s just due to normal wear and tear. It doesn’t take into account what we need to do to prevent our railways and runways from melting, like they did earlier this summer.

None of these costs are hypothetical. And yet, our current political system is full of climate deniers who not only refuse to pass meaningful climate legislation, they actively vote against legislation, like investing in renewable energy production, which would stave off the most severe impacts of climate change. If things continue on this path, in a few years the sand they stick their head into will be too hot to even do that.