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The Mississippi River's water level is at a record low, which affects grain exports

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The water level of the Mississippi River dropped to record lows in some key shipping areas recently due to the dry summer. Christopher Blank of member station WKNO in Memphis reports on the efforts to keep the river and its traffic flowing.

CHRISTOPHER BLANK, BYLINE: Water depth on the Mississippi has been so important for so long that the author Samuel Clemens, a one-time riverboat pilot, took his pen name from a measurement - the Mark Twain. In his day, that meant the water was deep enough to boat on. Today, Captain Adrian Pirani could probably write his own book about the Mississippi and its ebbs and flows.

ADRIAN PIRANI: The river was completely closed here for a few days.

BLANK: Pirani, who runs the Army Corps of Engineers ship called the Dredge Hurley, arrived in this section of the river north of Memphis early last week to get it back open. Water levels here recently dipped below a record set in 1988.

PIRANI: This is the worst I've ever seen.

BLANK: With his long hair and cowboy boots, Pirani oversees the dredge as it sucks up debris and sand from the riverbed to make the shipping lane deeper. In the past month, it's traveled some 900 miles from New Orleans to Cairo, Ill., and is now headed back south in an around-the-clock effort to keep the lower Mississippi open for business.

For Mike Clay, a hydrologist with the Corps of Engineers, even the science is trying to keep up. He says measuring water this low is more difficult these days, as he stands at the end of a boat ramp that now drops off onto a pile of rocks.

MIKE CLAY: The gauges that have been installed for decades were not built to measure water this low.

BLANK: The past decade has been one of extremes on the Mississippi. Historic high and low depths have come almost back to back, a pattern intensified by the warming climate. This year's drought in the heartland, Clay says, resembles a dry weather cycle last seen in 2000. The water levels remained low all the way into January, and that could happen again.

CLAY: At the moment, there's not a significant amount of rain out on the horizon.

BLANK: Which means agencies that manage river traffic will likely stay busy for the foreseeable future.

PHILLIP VANDERWEIT: We're all hands on deck. This is 24/7 work that we're doing, and we're throwing all the assets that we have and people at it.

BLANK: That is Lieutenant Phillip VanderWeit with the U.S. Coast Guard. The agency is in charge of moving the buoys that mark safe lanes for boats to travel.

VANDERWEIT: The river conditions are changing every day, you know? So it takes an active approach to stay ahead of that.

BLANK: And it's critical since half of America's grain export flows down the river. Randy Chamness with the Lower Mississippi Committee, an association of shipping groups, says storage has run out for farmers waiting to get the fall harvest onto barges.

RANDY CHAMNESS: And although we are moving it, we're moving it in much less quantities. So it just keeps backing up and backing up.

BLANK: Yet some scenes along Old Man River remain the same. In Memphis, Captain Scott Musgrove is in the wheelhouse of a sightseeing boat. Harbor dredging has kept the company afloat. As we head downriver, he points out curiosity seekers on the newly exposed riverbed, exploring some twisted metal.

SCOTT MUSGROVE: I think that's part of an old steamboat right there.

BLANK: All up and down the river, the low water has revealed the skeletons of sunken ships and artifacts that date back more than a century.

MUSGROVE: This is the time to explore with a metal detector and all. That's where you need to be right now.

BLANK: But on the main deck, tourists have lost interest in the riverbed and drift back to the bar and dance floor. And the music is appropriate.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROUD MARY")

TINA TURNER: (Singing) Rolling on the river.

BLANK: They are certainly rolling on the river - others, not so much.

For NPR News, I'm Christopher Blank in Memphis.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROUD MARY")

TURNER: (Singing) Yeah. All right. Rollin' on the river. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Blank