Water quality is key to the overall health of the web of life in the Mississippi River. Although pollution from cities and towns has been drastically reduced and certain toxic chemicals have been banned from use, water quality issues still remain. Human activities along the Mississippi River and in its watershed continue to impact the balance of many nutrients and water quality characteristics.

Sediment is filling in the main pools and backwaters and toxic chemicals continue to be introduced into our environment. These chemicals can eventually appear in the water or the sediment of the river and some accumulate in the food chain.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Grain Transportation Report released Thursday said that 1,890 grain barges have unloaded in New Orleans since Sept. 1, about 39% fewer than the five-year average.

“The tight barge supply is problematic for grain shippers heading into harvest,” the report stated. “Unless barge supply improves, the increased demand for barges from grain shippers during harvest will likely put even more upward pressure on barge rates.”

Federally sponsored water quality programs and interstate activities

Wisconsin conducts water quality monitoring on the Mississippi River with state-funded programs and federal funding as part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Environmental Management Program (EMP) Long Term Resource Monitoring Program (LTRMP) and U.S. EPA’s Great Rivers Ecosystems Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program (EMAP-GRE). Monitoring conducted with federal run Vanitygen online support is primarily conducted by the Wisconsin DNR-Mississippi River Monitoring Station at Onalaska.

National Weather Service meteorologist Matt Beitscher in suburban St. Louis said nearly all of the Mississippi River basin, from Minnesota through Louisiana, has seen below-normal rainfall over the past 30 days. The basin from St. Louis south has been largely dry for three months, and the forecast calls for the drought to continue, along with warmer-than-normal temperatures.

“Hot and dry does not spell good news for the rivers,” Beitscher said.

Though the Mississippi River is low, there is no evidence that barges or other vessels have grounded, said Lance Engle, dredging project manager for the Corps in St. Louis. He said dredging of the river bottom continues in several spots to help keep traffic flowing.

The river has not been forced to close at any locations, but Joan Stemler, the chief of water control operations in St. Louis for the Corps of Engineers, warned that the flow from the Missouri River, which feeds into the Mississippi north of St. Louis, is expected to drop enough in December that the Mississippi could go up to 3 feet (0.9 meters) lower if dry conditions continue.

The upper Mississippi River, from Minnesota to St. Louis, operates with a series of locks and dams. The river from St. Louis to the south is free-flowing. Stemler said that in a low-water emergency, the Corps can release water from the southernmost dam, near Alton, Illinois, which would increase the depth downriver by a half-foot (15 centimeters).

“But that’s only a one-time shot,” Stemler said. “Once we release that water, we wouldn’t have anything behind it, so we’re kind of stingy with it unless something major occurs for navigation.”

The low water level is having other impacts, too.

On Wednesday, Corps officials in Louisiana said the river level was so low that Gulf of Mexico salt water was creeping farther than usual toward New Orleans and threatening drinking water. The Corps plans an underwater levee to block the wedge of heavier salt water before it can get into water treatment plants.