As Mississippi River levels continue to drop and its infrastructure crumbles, the waterway’s effective closure looms on the horizon like a dark cloud for the many farmers. For a large portion of the Corn Belt, the river not only serves as the primary means by which to move their crop for export but also as the main channel by which fertilizer for the 2013 planting season is brought into the region.

The drought, which lowered river levels across the Midwest and Northern Plains, intensified preexisting issues with Mississippi River transportation in that its effects highlight the severity of the need for major infrastructure improvements to our nation’s main inland waterway.

“All the problems are because of the drought,” says Garry Niemeyer, chairman of the National Corn Growers Association. “But we’ve been trying to upgrade the locks and dams since 1993, and our federal government isn’t doing that. If we continue to not build our infrastructure, we’re going to lose our markets.”

Current river levels are the lowest in decades, crippling barge traffic and causing major shipping delays both up and down the river. Already, barge tows can barely squeeze through navigable parts of the channel. As shippers are forced to further reduce the size of tows and lighten loads, thus wasting much needed capacity, river traffic may grind to a near-complete halt this month.

By early January, the water level could drop to a historic low of 6.ft. feet at St. Louis.

The Waterways Council, Inc., of which NCGA is a member, commissioned a study to determine the effects should of a December Mississippi River closure. The findings showed that approximately $2.3 billion in agricultural products will be delayed in reaching their markets, and job losses in Illinois and Missouri could near 7,500.

The importance of the Mississippi River to agriculture is difficult to understate, with $52 billion in grain and other farmed goods produced in its watershed annually. Allowing the movement of 125 million tons of commodities in 2008, the most recent year for which data is available, failure to repair and improve river infrastructure would likely jeopardize the movement of those commodities to market.

“We are in a tailspin right now as far as locks and dams are concerned,” says Paul Rohde, vice president of the council. “Closures have tripled since 2000.”

Currently, the Army Corps of Engineers plans to begin working to ease the situation by demolishing rock pinnacles impeding river traffic with explosives. The blasting, which had not been scheduled to begin until mid-February at the earliest, will now start after an emergency declaration allowing the expedited blasting has been obtained.