The mighty Mississippi running dry: what you need to know

Water levels in the Mississippi River hit record lows in the past month. Here is why it matters to you.

The Mississippi River, LA | Getty Images

Water levels in the Mississippi River hit record lows in the past month. The drought is impacting shipping along the river, along with business and tourism in river communities.

We know that climate change is fueling extremes when it comes to water and rivers – more frequent and severe floods and droughts are threatening public health and safety, the environment and the economy. 

This is why action for river health – on the Mississippi and on rivers nationwide – is so essential.

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How big is the Mississippi River basin?

The entire watershed of the Mississippi River covers 41 percent of the contiguous United States.

St. Louis skyline along the Mississippi River | Photo by Carl J. Elitz
St. Louis skyline along the Mississippi River | Photo by Carl J. Elitz

What does a healthy Mississippi River look like?

As Olivia Dorothy of American Rivers recently told the Washington Post, “Historically, the winding river was marked by a wide floodplain that would swell during wetter years, while drier years would leave pools and deeper spots throughout the waterway.”

What wildlife depend on the Mississippi River?

The Mississippi River is home to 241 species of fish, 50 species of mammals, and 45 species of amphibians. The river is a major migratory path for birds in both spring and fall. From otters and coyotes to walleye and sturgeon, the river supports a rich and diverse web of life.

Why is water so low in the Mississippi River right now?

The Mississippi River is running at historic lows, thanks to lack of rain and months of warm, dry weather across the river basin. “We’re seeing a lot less precipitation and that’s what we’re going to see with climate change,” American Rivers President Tom Kiernan explained in a recent TV news interview.

What impact is the drought having on people and the economy?

A shrinking river is hurting people and the economy in a variety of ways. Barges can’t operate on the river to get goods to market. Drinking water may also be at risk – for example, salt water moving upriver from the Gulf of Mexico could impact drinking water supplies in parts of Louisiana.

What can people do to help the Mississippi River and its people and wildlife?

American Rivers named the Mississippi River among America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2022. Learn more and take action.

13 responses to “The mighty Mississippi running dry: what you need to know

  1. Ok, so I am confused…when we have floods on the mighty Mississippi (we have had one every 3 years since 2011) that is attributed to global warming. Now this article warns of drought from global warming from a one year drought (from what I can find, this river has a drought about every 10 years, last one 2010). Is every significant weather event a result of global warming? One year/data point does not make a trend. Articles like this should provide more real data and less rhetoric…

  2. Lobbyist and politicians, that’s where some of the blame goes, and the companies these weasels represent that are making money.
    It’s the American way nowadays. It’s not what’s best for the country, or what’s best for the people.

  3. Global warming is the story those behind this global coup use to put the blame for their excesses on the common man. Just know this: if big institutions and governments say something is true, it is not. Discern the quality of the people behind such organizations. We live in upside-down land; everything is the opposite of what it seems.

    1. Climate change deniers are the reason we are in this mess ! And you know by the common man not excepting that climate change is true and willing to make changes ! The one who is going to feel it the most is the common man period ! So put your head in the sand and continue that and more your kids and the next generations are going to pay dearly for their previous generations stupidity!

  4. Inflation, inflation, plastics trash messing the environment, Americans are poor with gas and retail purchases are beyond their resources. We, we Americans want to buy buy whether we need it or not. It is a “I WANT SOCIETY”. Therefore, the we “WANT SOCIETY” destroys our resources (Natural and Man Made) causing the destruction of our environment and in turn the major weather conditions has now given us “CLIMATE CHANGE”. What do we expect when Americans, with their want, are the major factor in changing the planet. We will seen what happens in the coming years how with changes to reduce our planet’s destruction.

  5. In both the lower Ohio River and the Mississippi mainstem has had low water exposures of many mussel beds this fall. Almost 70% of Unionid mussels are protected by the ESA. Mississippi watershed big river mussel populations have been fragmented by dam driven substrate changes and barge traffic impacts. Low water exposures can impact the remaining populations since many are now squeezed by barge impacts in the navigation channel and the banks.

  6. Peso Paul’s suggestion to stop cutting trees and paving everything has merit. We still need farmland for food not for the next housing development and paved parking lots.
    However, because of 100 years of extinguishing fires, our woodlands badly need thinning to prevent the recent mega fires.
    Less snow means less water stored in the mountains for summer use. Larger populations need ever more water with less rain falling in the rainy season. Or too much rain falling and wiping out communities that used to be safely above the flood plain.
    We are planting tomatoes at least a month earlier than we did even 10 years ago where I live. The summers are longer and hotter with more triple digit days than before. Winters are warm enough that we overwintered tomato plants in our backyard. I only had to cover them twice all winter. The tomatoes did taste good, though.
    There are fewer birds around than there were. All the power lines near grain elevators used to be lined with birds from pole to pole. There are only a few birds on the wires there now. There are even less pigeons!
    Climate change has been creeping up on us, but now it is no longer creeping. It is going full speed ahead.

  7. As a long term friend of the American Rivers and a River Guardian of the Friends of Mississippi River, I appreciate the reading of this article and will spread it with my comment through social networks. In addition, I’ll timely share several good points and impressive images in the article in my lecture on November 15 about the subject of using Mississippi River as a case to illustrate issues of water environment for larger rivers & watersheds across states in the US. The online teaching is held by the Center of International Education, California State University, Dominguez Hills, and the audience is a group of 30 officials, scientists & engineers working at the Bureau of Ecologic Environment, City of Harbin, China, who take part in professional development training offered by the Center.

  8. There is no answer—–once the reservoirs on the tributaries like the Arkansas, Tennessee and the Missouri run dry we’ll have 2 accept that commercial traffic on the river will steadily die. A steady diet of hurricanes from the Gulf of Mexico would B nice 4 water levels but not 4 human safety. We do have RRs—-they have been making steady strides at becoming more fuel-efficient and R even testing battery electric locomotives. We’ve assumed that the basin will B wet forever because it has over the past couple of centuries. In nature, change is always happening.

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