Market Matters Blog

What's Up With Mississippi River Water Levels?

Mary Kennedy
By  Mary Kennedy , DTN Basis Analyst
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While much of the river system has received good moisture so far this winter, St. Louis has not, keeping river levels below zero gauge. Barges are still moving, as seen in this picture, but draft restrictions have been ongoing and fluctuating. (DTN photo by Mary Kennedy)

It wasn't that long ago that barges were unable to move safely on the Lower Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Record low water levels were recorded at Memphis, Tennessee, of -10.81 feet below zero gauge in October 2022. Barges were littered along parts of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers after sandbars caused them to ground. Dredges were working overtime to free stuck barges and to keep channels open for barges needing to get to the Gulf. During that time, American Commercial Barge Line called the low water "catastrophic."

As the calendar turned to February 2023, decent precipitation helped water levels increase on the Mississippi River at Memphis, Tennessee, and the Ohio River at Cairo -- two of the most troubled spots in 2022. As of Feb. 5, the level at Cairo looks good, but the gauge at Memphis shows the river falling to a low-level stage by the middle of the month without more rain.

At St. Louis, Missouri, there were some increases in the Mississippi River levels the past few months, but the level always returned to below zero gauge as the river there didn't see the same moisture as the other cities. As of Feb 5, the water level is at -1.02 feet below zero gauge and falling.

The past week, barges were able to increase drafts to 11 feet at St. Louis after being at 9 feet, 6 inches during the end of January, but that is subject to change if the water levels fall more. When drafts are cut due to poor conditions, the freight costs remain the same regardless of the change in drafts.

The saving grace right now is that there is less demand currently in the Gulf for soybeans, and especially corn, so there isn't the kind of traffic we see at harvest.

The weekly USDA Grain Transportation Report showed that, for the week ending Jan. 28, barged grain movements totaled 627,050 tons. This was 6% lower than the previous week and, in addition, 402 grain barges moved down river, 17 fewer than last week. "For the week ending Jan. 26, 26 oceangoing grain vessels were loaded in the Gulf -- 30% fewer than the same period last year. Within the next 10 days (starting Jan.27), 39 vessels were expected to be loaded -- 25% fewer than the same period last year," added USDA.

The next best hope for river levels to move higher at St. Louis and below will come from a slow and steady spring melt in the Upper Mississippi River states. Once Lake Pepin sheds its ice, the flow of water from above Lock and Dam 4 will increase. The USACE St. Paul Division has said the first ice measurements of 2023 will be on Feb. 13, but it could be at least a month until she opens for business.

The most important source of water for the Lower Mississippi is the Ohio River, which supplies approximately 60% of the water there. So far, there was some help when the Ohio River at Cairo rose to 28 feet on Feb. 1. As of Feb. 5, the level there is at 26.4 feet and starting a slow fall until more moisture arrives.

DTN Ag Meteorologist John Baranick noted in his latest forecast for the Lower Mississippi, "Though area rivers are full due to recent rainfall, a lack of precipitation farther north will send river levels down through this week and are forecast to continue next week as well. Some precipitation will be added this week but is not forecast to have a significant enough of an effect to stop the drop in water levels."

Lower Ohio/Mississippi River, Lower Mississippi River forecast:…

Mississippi River at St. Louis:…

Mississippi River at Memphis:…

Ohio River at Cairo:…

Mary Kennedy can be reached at

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