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Lower Water Levels on Mississippi Put “Crop Exports at Risk,” Impact New Orleans Drinking Water

Bloomberg writer Michael Hirtzer reported on Friday that, “America’s crop exports are once again at risk due to a diminished Mississippi River.

“Months of dry weather and the hottest summer ever shrunk the vital channel that funnels barges of grain and soybeans from the Midwestern crop belt to Gulf Coast ports.

“Barge operators now are running lighter loads to compensate for the lack of water.

Prices paid to farmers for their crops are easing as a result, with seasonal pressure from the autumn harvest further weighing on the market.

“Mississippi River Waters Dip Toward Record Low in Threat to US Crop Exports,” by Michael Hirtzer. Bloomberg News (September 29, 2023).

Shipping costs for barges along the river surged in September, with spot rates rising as much as 64% in a week at Memphis, Tennessee, according to US Department of Agriculture data.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service. Grain Transportation Report. September 28, 2023. Web: http://

Higher transport costs help make US crops more expensive than shipping out of countries such as Brazil — when bigger South American harvests were already taking market share from North America.”

Meanwhile, Jacey Fortin reported in Saturday’s New York Times that, “People in New Orleans are used to preparing for hurricanes and floods. So when they learned of a new threat — an infusion of salty water creeping slowly up the Mississippi River, threatening municipal drinking water supplies — they did what comes naturally: strip bottled water from grocery store shelves.

“When Will the Saltwater Wedge Reach New Orleans? We Mapped It,” by Mira Rojanasakul. The New York Times (September 29, 2023).

“But this is a crisis with even more lead time than a storm churning in the Gulf of Mexico: The worst of the saltwater intrusion isn’t expected to reach the city until late October. And the salty water could stick around for much longer, potentially corroding the city’s lead-lined pipes.”

The Times article explained that, “The crisis is a result of drought conditions in the Midwest, which have sapped water levels in the Mississippi, allowing salty water from the Gulf to creep upstream beneath a freshwater layer.”

Fortin added that, “Officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers say the ‘saltwater wedge,’ which has already affected communities downstream, could reach water treatment plants near New Orleans in about a month, pushing the salty water into household faucets.

“About a million people across southeastern Louisiana could be affected.”

Keith Good Photo

Keith Good is the Farm Policy News editor for the farmdoc project. He has previously worked for the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, and compiled the daily News Summary from 2003-2015. He is a graduate of Purdue University (M.S.- Agricultural Economics), and Southern Illinois University School of Law.

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