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Water Levels Rise on Mississippi, But Below St. Louis

January 18, 2013; 5:00 AM

A series of storms and recent thaw has driven water levels up on the Ohio and lower Mississippi rivers, but levels are again falling on the upper Mississippi.

Record-challenging low levels are forecast at the Gateway to the West.

Several drenching storms, combined with snow melt in some areas during the recent warm spell, have pushed a few tributaries of the Ohio River to flood levels in recent days.

The Ohio River joins the Mississippi at Cairo, Ill.

The runoff will translate to higher levels downstream on the Mississippi River through Memphis, Tenn., Vicksburg, Miss., and eventually New Orleans.

This graph shows the rise of the Mississippi River level at Tiptonville, Tenn. National Weather Service hydrologist forecasts are represented by the dots beyond the current date.

However, while some rivers including the Illinois have seen some modest rises levels in recent days and the level briefly reversed at St. Louis, it was only a short-term bump in the overall slow-fall. However, at least it was a little good news for a change.

A significant amount of barge traffic uses the Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Louis and farther north. There is a several-hundred mile stretch of very low water levels from Cairo, Ill., to St. Louis and upstream.

Unfortunately, the pattern of little precipitation will continue mainly from around Cairo, Ill., north and west over the next few weeks. In addition, colder air will continue to settle over the same region and significant ice formation is likely on the upper reaches of the river.

This means that little runoff will enter the Upper Mississippi and Missouri watersheds.

Farther south and east, there will likely continue to be more storms with more moisture.

As the storms drop in from the northwest or move up from the southwest, they will grab moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and deposit it in the form of rain and in some cases snow and ice over the Tennessee and Ohio valleys, as well as the Appalachians moving forward through the rest of January and into February.

The record low water level at St. Louis is 6.2 feet and could be challenged late in January into February unless the weather pattern dramatically changes.

Five Lowest Mississippi River Levels on Record

Depth
Date
1. -6.20 ft
Jan. 16, 1940
2. -5.80 ft
Jan. 26, 1963
3. -5.60 ft
Jan. 1, 1964
4. -5.50 ft
Dec. 12, 1937
5. -5.32 ft
Dec. 26, 1989

Perhaps if periodic precipitation continues to fall over the Illinois River basin, record low levels at St. Louis could be warded off. The Illinois River joins the Mississippi just northwest of St. Louis.

Dredging, rocky outcrop removal and placement of artificial river bottom on behalf of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has maintained the narrowing shipping channel, but the rest is up to Mother Nature.

In this Nov. 12, 2012, file photo, two barges head north on the Mississippi River past St. Louis, as seen from East St. Louis, Ill. Water levels are poised to plunge at St. Louis over the next month, unless storms bring moisture to the upper Mississippi watershed. (AP Photo/Jim Suhr, File)

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