The water level of the Mississippi River is so low, people walk to Tower Rock


Tower Rock – a huge island in the middle of the Mississippi River, south of St. Louis – is usually surrounded by water and only accessible by boat. But as severe drought sweeps across the Midwest and pushes river levels to near-record lows, people can walk to the rock formation.

“The river is down enough to walk to Tower Rock and not get your feet wet or muddy,” Missouri resident Jeff Biget told CNN. “I remember only doing this at one other time in my life.”

Photographs taken by Biget show people walking along the rocky riverbed to the tower of the island; that it poses little risk in the short term, as water levels are expected to continue to drop for at least the next two weeks.

Tower Rock is accessible by foot when the water level is below 1.5 feet across the river in Chester, Illinois, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation. That gauge dropped to around zero on Thursday and forecasts show no significant recovery.

More than 55% of the contiguous United States is in drought, according to the US Drought Monitor, the largest area since April. And more than 133 million people live in these drought-affected areas, the largest affected population since 2016.

Severe drought affects more than 70 percent of Arkansas and nearly 40 percent of Missouri, up from 5 percent a month ago. Several locations have seen little precipitation in recent weeks, including Memphis, Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Springfield, Missouri. The Climate Prediction Center’s forecast is dry, with below-average precipitation expected through at least October 23rd.

The expansion of the drought in the central US in the early fall has had a significant impact on the Mississippi River. In Memphis, the river was at its lowest level since 2012 this week, and was the fifth lowest on record. For next week, the forecast calls for further declines to the third lowest level on record.

More than 40 river gauges in the Mississippi River basin are reporting low water levels, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

weather precipitation forecast 6-10 days CPC

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Bailey White, who lives north of Memphis, Tennessee, told CNN that he has never seen the water level of the Mississippi River drop so low. White says he and his family boat on the river a few times a month, but they had a hard time getting it on Saturday.

“I’ve seen the water level drop a little bit and I’ve seen it get really high, but I’ve never seen it this low,” White said. “We couldn’t even get our little boat into the river. We had to try five different docks until we got it. It’s a small boat, so it doesn’t go deep in the water, but we had to pay special attention more than once, otherwise we’d hit the sand.”

The photo shows how the river has shrunk away from its banks. Normally the mighty Mississippi looks more like a slot in some areas, with many feet of water flowing over exposed dry sand.

The Mississippi River in Memphis -- shown here near the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge -- has slowed.  It was the fifth lowest level on record this week and continues to fall.

Low water levels shown in the Memphis area.

The 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. Hundreds of barges and ships are lined up, waiting to pass through the treacherous shallow river.

Consolidated Grain and Barge Company, which buys, stores and sells grain for shipment, can typically carry grain in barges loaded up to 80,000 bushels, according to David Gilbert, director of the Greenville, Mississippi office.

But recent low water levels have forced the company to keep its loads much lighter, around 55,000 bushels.

“I haven’t seen it any lower than it is now,” Gilbert told CNN. “We’re not charging now.”

Instead of shipping crops right now, Gilbert said, many farmers are “dumping them in containers” and waiting for better conditions, which could still be weeks away.

Tower Rock, left, taken this week.  Aerial photo of Tower Rock, right, under normal water conditions.

But as the supply chain crisis grows, a playful mood is taking hold around Tower Rock.

“Tower Rock, the river ride only happens once in a while,” Elainna Froemsdorf told CNN affiliate KFVS.

He took his grandchildren for a walk on Monday, which was a school holiday.

“There was no school today, so Grandma’s Day is fun,” Froemsdorf said.

He tells KFVS that his grandchildren are the third generation of his family to walk the line. And her granddaughter, Adilyn Chowder, was happy for the new experience.

“I’ve never done anything like this before, and it was kind of a challenge, but it was fun,” Crowden told KFVS.