Photos and satellite images of the central United States show how the region’s worst drought in at least a decade has pushed the Mississippi River and its tributaries to their lowest levels this month.
Across the river basin, dozens of gauges have dropped below the low water mark. The Mississippi River was at historically low levels from Illinois to Louisiana this week, and many of those gauges will continue to drop as the forecast remains dry.
Drone video of the Mississippi River near Memphis shows just how far the mighty river has shrunk from its banks.
The river dropped to -10.75 meters there earlier this week, according to National Weather Service data, which was the lowest level ever recorded in Memphis.
Drought has once again spread across the Midwest and South this week, according to the US Drought Monitor. About half of the contiguous US is covered in moderate or worse drought conditions – the third highest for the year so far and the highest since March.
The monitor reports that more than 134 million people are affected by drought conditions, which is the highest percentage of the population since 2016.
The Midwest has seen the worst damage, increasing the area covered by the drought to about 60,000 square kilometers, about the size of Georgia.
“Soil moisture continues to dry across parts of the Ohio Valley and Corn Belt,” Drought Tracker reported Thursday, and “deeper soil moisture remains very low across much of the Mississippi Valley as well.”
The dry conditions have had a major impact not only on the Mississippi, but also on the rivers that flow into it.
Before and after satellite images from the National Weather Service show how the rivers moved away from their banks between July 14 and October 17.
Mississippi River Kentucky Bend and New Madrid, Missouri:
Ohio River at Mound City Landing, Illinois:
In Nebraska, aerial photos show the Platte River, which runs through the state and empties into the Mississippi, has dried up in some places. The river has disappeared near Kearney, Nebraska, leaving dry sand where the water flows.
Several inches of rain is possible in the central U.S. next week, according to the National Weather Service, which could provide some relief, particularly along the Mississippi River’s tributaries.
But the long-term outlook is drier than average. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s seasonal drought forecast calls for the region’s drought to continue into January.
Low river levels have allowed people to walk to Tower Rock, CNN previously reported, an island in the middle of the Mississippi River south of St. Louis that is normally only accessible by boat.
Low levels are causing saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico to rise up the Mississippi, and the Army Corps is building a 1,500-foot-wide underwater levee to keep salt out of Louisiana’s drinking water.
Also, just as low water levels in Lake Mead have revealed some human remains, a woman walking along the banks of the Mississippi River over the weekend found bones that may have been human, officials said. The remains include a lower jaw, ribs and unidentified bone fragments, Chief Medical Examiner Scotty Meredith told CNN in Coahoma County, Mississippi.
The Tennessee Valley Authority announced this week that it will release more water from two dams to top up Mississippi River water levels. In Cairo, Illinois, the Mississippi is “approaching its lowest river level since 1901,” the agency said on its Facebook page.
“To help stabilize navigation conditions on the lower Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, we are scheduling special water releases from Kentucky Dam into the Tennessee River and Barkley Dam into the Cumberland River to help with low river level impacts,” the agency wrote.
TVA spokesman Travis Brickey told CNN that water from dams is typically released on a rolling basis, operating on a “make-stop-make-stop” cycle.
But for the foreseeable future, the dams are releasing a consistent flow of water to help combat the ongoing drought’s impact on water levels.
The Mississippi’s low water levels come at a crucial time of year for transporting crops through the nation’s heartland, CNN previously reported.
The Army Corps of Engineers has been dredging sections of the river to allow traffic to flow, albeit at a much slower pace. This month, hundreds of barges and vessels have been lined up, waiting to pass through the treacherous shallow river.