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<p>Gerard Wright/The Global Mail</p>

Gerard Wright/The Global Mail

Gravel is unloaded from a barge at the Madison Parish Port in Louisiana

Landlocked In The Mississippi River

America’s mighty Mississippi should be carrying Louisiana’s best crops in generations to market, but sand-jams and dredges have slowed the traffic on Twain’s famed waterway, which dropped to its lowest depths in generations. What’s going on?

So that's it. More than a trickle, less than a torrent. Where I'm standing on the Mississippi, a massive four-lane cantilever bridge carries traffic on Interstate Highway 20, out of Louisiana, over the water and into Vicksburg, Mississippi, the site of a ruthless Civil War siege, and the mid-point of Highway 61, America's road of songs.

This is where the river pilots work their magic, deft and daring as Formula One drivers in slow motion.

Old Man Running Dry

The bridge is about a kilometre downstream from a sharp, right-hand bend that forces the pilots to execute a manoeuvre called "the Vicksburg slide" as they try to navigate the broadest opening between two bridge pylons.

With the faster current on the high side of the river bend, the pilots — with a line of barges attached two by two or three by three, to a length of up to 380 metres — are forced to essentially traverse the river, pointed downstream at a 50-degree angle as the fierce current catches them from behind and from the side.

Depending on your vantage point, it can look as though the barge and its cargo are going almost sideways through the gap. That's an incredible feat of judgment, nerve and innate knowledge of two entirely separate entities: the operating capacity of a 6,000hp tug (with its response to competing rearward and sideways pressures by twenty 1,500-tonne barges, pushed by three 10-disc screws) and the barely visible foibles of a river with a 17 km/h current, 45 metres deep.

That is the Mississippi River on a normal day.

The view from the bridge shows broad, sandy reaches on the western, Louisiana side, and artful, natural sand terracing down from the tree-lined shore on the Mississippi side, with barely 200 metres of water in between. The sands are empty. This may be a novelty, but not yet a curiosity.

A year after its 500-year flood, the great river continues to act as a massive pendulum for disjointed American weather patterns.

In 2011, the Rocky Mountain snowpack was at 212 per cent, while spring rains in the vast Midwest of the United States were four times the average. All of it emptied into the Mississippi. At its peak, the river sent floodwaters in tributaries like the Forked Deer River, in northwestern Tennessee, backwards, their access to the river effectively dammed by a larger hydrological force.

That was the river as a force unto itself, forcing hurried diversions of massive floodwater flows through two seldom-used relief points, or spillways, upstream of the primary Louisiana cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

This year's Mississippi is almost unrecognisable as the same river — narrower, slower, riddled with shoals that catch even the savviest barge skipper unawares. The river's catchment area is dry, part of the 62 per cent of the continental US under drought declaration this August — it's the worst dry spell in 56 years and the fifth-worst in American history.

“We seem to be living in an age of extremes. ”

"We seem to be living in an age of extremes," said Tommy Hart, the director of the river port in Greenville, Mississippi. "We had the flood last year, and now we have low water."

Climate is what you expect. Weather is what you get. The Mississippi is the word of both, writ large in its extremes of behaviour and misbehavior.

A COUPLE of dozen bends downstream from Vicksburg, Marvin Collins stands on the Terral dock, above the Madison Parish Port. The word Port suggests a busy hub of marine traffic, but this is a small, muddy billabong, running at a 120-degree angle off the Mississippi, with two loading points. One barge with its cargo of gravel is being off-loaded, and 30 to 40 more are moored to the bank, just downstream.

From this vantage point, the still, brackish water of the company port is 15 to 20 metres below. The noise of the unloading of the nearby barge is constant.

Collins is a land operations manager for Terral, a freight-transport company specialising in barge shipping. The point where he is standing juts out into space. Behind and marginally below him at the edge of the dock are the type of corrugated guard rails you see on the edge of highways. The floodwaters of last year rose to just below the top of those rails, he says, pointing so that all you could see was a strip of metal above the water. Now they are high and dry, standing about a metre above the dock.

<p>AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis</p>

AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

a massive sand incursion advances on the river at Greenville, Mississippi

This is the Mississippi Delta. The land surrounding the river is so flat that the only elevated view is from a levee or the rare multi-storey structure, like this dock. From up here, you can see the river for a long way as it runs roughly north-south between two of the recorded 390 bends that are the river between St Louis and New Orleans.

Today it is the river of an oil painting, with the stream of grey-brown water framed by rising banks of ochre-coloured sand. A passing towboat and its cargo navigate upriver between coloured buoys, red and green. Collins points to another buoy. It lies on its side at the water's edge, dark and discoloured, an aquatic device now useless.

This image is flawed, out of character and context. The usual middle- and long-range view from here is of trees, a small amount of river bank and then nothing but water, vast and fast and silent — a beast alive and barely held in check by centuries of engineering and theory.

The Mississippi specialises in providing unnatural perspectives. At the edge of New Orleans' French Quarter, you can stand on the river side of Jackson Square in spring, when the waters are running high, and watch a massive container ship, its hull several storeys above eye level, roll majestically and improbably by.

That's because in New Orleans the river is higher than the city, and only engineering sleight-of-hand and millions of tonnes of soil, rock and concrete ensure the existence of this surreal masterpiece.

It’s the worst dry spell in 56 years and the fifth-worst in American history.

Still further downstream, in Plaquemines Parish, another confounding situation was unfolding, this one pre-dating the misery accompanying Hurricane Isaac: due to the drought, the mouth of the river is now lower than the sea, which means that saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico has been heading up the river valley.

Plaquemines stretches 130 km along both sides of the Mississippi, just south of New Orleans. The usual summer saltwater incursion is about 20 km upstream; this year it has travelled as far as 140 km in from the river mouth.

And although the 24,000 inhabitants of the parish are no strangers to disaster, having endured the impact of hurricanes (Katrina, 2005; Gustav, 2008) and the BP Deepwater Horizon oil-rig blowout of 2010, which bathed the surface and shores of the Gulf in a massive oil slick, on August 15, residents were warned their drinking water supply had been compromised by a spike in the sodium content of the parish's water supply systems.

Notwithstanding the fact that the stretch of the lower Mississippi between the Louisiana state capital of Baton Rouge and New Orleans drains a region known as "Chemical Alley" — named for its cluster of oil refineries and petrochemical plants — the parish residents draw their household water from the river.

Recent tests of the affected water showed levels of up to 362 milligrams of chloride per litre (mg/L), and sodium levels in the range of 60 to 200 mg/L. Low-sodium diet regulations restrict sodium content in drinking water to 20 mg/L.

Although the people of Plaquemines appear to be copping it both coming and going, what with the undrinkable water and the pending three- to five-foot storm surge from Isaac, history and Randy Newman would suggest that they've seen it all before.

If they're conditioned to expect the worst, they were not disappointed this time. The storm surge, a gradual but inexorable increase of the sea level, generated by the hurricane's downward pressure on the water as it heads towards land, cleared the levees around the towns of Plaquemine Parish, leaving the houses with water up to their eaves; with the added irony of that water now trapped in place by the same levees that were unable to resist the surge.

A Plaquemines sherrif, Lonnie Greco, described the impact of the hurricane as "worse than Katrina, definitely worse", in a gripping rescue story published today by the New Orleans Times Picayune newspaper.

Newman, whose mother grew up in New Orleans, captured the parish's repeated jousts with unkind fate, and the river itself, in his 1975 song, "Louisiana 1927":

The river rose all day

The declining levels of the river had slowed barge traffic to a crawl, reducing both the speed and volume of transport of the harvest.

The river rose all night

Some people got lost in the flood

Some people got away alright

The river have busted through clear down to Plaquemines

Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

<p>Gerard Wright/The Global Mail</p>

Gerard Wright/The Global Mail

The river at Madison Parish Port, Louisiana, barely 150 metres wide

Whatever the history and current circumstances, the river continues to be the literal and figurative centre of the parish's existence: after a few days of trucking in fresh water to replace that of the saline stream, Plaquemines Parish government announced that further supplies would be brought in by barge.

Now the dispute is with the Gulf of Mexico, and a hurricane that has overstayed its welcome. Drinking water will still be a problem for parish residents, as will the issue of what to do with houses inundated, yet again, by ceiling-high flooding.

Plaquemines was one indicator of Isaac's deceptive strength. The Mississippi itself was another. The river carried a storm surge 360 km upstream to the Louisiana state capital, Baton Rouge, where a 2.4 metre rise in the water level was recorded.

IN MID-AUGUST some of the staff of Terral gathered for lunch in a café in Transylvania, a hamlet of 523 souls. Run by a Mennonite family, the café specialises in the local delicacy, catfish.

High on a wall in the dining area, the flat-screen TV was tuned to The Weather Channel. It showed the current location and best guesstimates of the passage of Isaac, then known as a tropical storm.

“The Mississippi River was the heritage of the people and that neither Congress nor any state legislature had the right to give control of its navigation to any person or company. ”

Gregg Johnson was among the customers keeping an eye on the screen. He is 51-years-old, a farmer growing corn and soybeans on 480 ha.

Four days later, with Isaac slowly emerging as a hurricane, Louisiana was expecting its landfall and an accompanying deluge. Gregg Johnson was on the phone, his manner courteous but businesslike. His harvest would be bountiful and the prices it would bring were high, but the state of the river and the advancing storm meant the window for profiting from his crops was closing fast.

The quickest, safest, most efficient way of harvesting crops has forever been the preoccupation of farmers. On the western side of the Mississippi River, circumstances had combined to turn this preoccupation into an obsession.

The drought had decimated corn and soybean crops in the American Midwest, which puts a premium on the price of those grains available from Louisiana. Farmers like Johnson, who runs 40 per cent corn, 60 per cent soy, were seeing the best crops and the highest prices of their working lives — Johnson's farming career began after he graduated from secondary school in 1978 — if only they could get the crops out of the fields, and on their way to market.

But that same drought had also dropped the Mississippi to its lowest levels since 1988, and in some cases, the lowest since 1940.

<p>NASA Earth Observatory</p>

NASA Earth Observatory

Satellite images reveal the extent of the Mississippi's narrowing

The declining levels of the river had slowed barge traffic to a crawl, reducing both the speed and volume of transport of the harvest.

The bottlenecks announced themselves in places like Montecito, a hamlet at the T-intersection at the end of State Highway 565 — a stretch of tarmac half-heartedly repaired after repeated washouts. There, in the southeast corner of the T, mounds of harvested corn rose 10-12 metres high, extending 60 metres back in three matching rows.

This particular chokepoint was outside the office of Raley Bros., a seed processing and transport company that was receiving 600 truckloads of corn each day. So far, the stored grain — some out in the open, some under massive white sheets of plastic — amounted to 225,000 tonnes.

"It's not unusual to have corn on the ground," said Mark Raley, chief operating officer of the company. "This much is unprecedented."

The trucks kept coming as Raley and his son, Jeremy conferred in their office. And they would keep coming, because, as he put it, "Farmers are not going to stop cutting beans."

“It’s a mysterious, uncontrollable being. I’m not up to par with what-all goes on, but we’ve forced the river to stay within certain channels and it naturally doesn’t want to do that, and it’s got us to this point. I don’t know. ”

Gregg Johnson estimated 75 per cent of his crop was in. "We're wide open until it rains," he said. "We'll go all night if we can."

He was on his way to a grain elevator silo, mindful that sometime soon, he was going to meet the consequences of the stoppage of river traffic downstream, below the state capital Baton Rouge.

"It's tight there," he said of the elevators. "They're doing all they can do, but with the barges and the river situation, it's pretty tight."

The forecast for the rain accompanying Isaac was a dump of 350 mm over Louisiana. Johnson was hoping for less than half of that. "If it clears up after it and the wind blows, the sun comes out and we're not flooded, we can salvage a lot of it," he said.

That was the best case. He has lived through the worst, too. "The last time a hurricane did this to me, I had to destroy 700 acres [283ha]," Johnson said. "Take your pay check for six months and tear it up. That's what it would be like for you."

<p>Gerard Wright/The Global Mail</p>

Gerard Wright/The Global Mail

Gravel is unloaded from a barge at the Madison Parish Port in Louisiana

Gregg Johnson was racing the clock and the clouds. Asked how often he was looking at the sky, and looking to the south, where Hurricane Isaac was still meandering, he replied dryly, "About every five minutes."

Jeremy Raley's corner office has a single-window view of the arriving grain trucks. Father and son share cropped hair around baldness, and goatees at different stages of advancement. Jeremy sat at his desk, an album's-worth of framed baby and family photos encircling his workspace. Mark perched on an office shelf, a pair of stuffed deer heads on the wall behind him. He said that, in the company's earliest days, his grandmother used to calculate and write the transport tickets on brown paper bags.

THE MISSISSIPPI is a figure in American myth, song and history. It was the making of New Orleans and the fast-tracking, during the 19th century, of a nation only just beginning to assemble anything like transport infrastructure. It drains 41 per cent of the continental United States, as well as the lower reaches of Canada. It's the third largest watershed in the world, after the Amazon and the Congo.

The length, breadth and speed of the Mississippi forced architects, engineers and hydrologists to extend their expertise and imagination to the farthest reaches of possibility as they sought to bridge the river, and attempted to control the water itself.

The result is a transport artery that annually carries USD180 billion of cargo, according to trade group American Waterways Operators, including 60 per cent of the nation's grain, 22 per cent of its oil and gas, and 20 per cent of US coal.

“We’re on Mars, and there are still things about the river we don’t understand. For the most part, we take it for granted. ”

The flood records set on the Mississippi last May and June have been matched by the depths the river has receded to now. In Memphis, Tennessee, the river is 17 metres lower than its flood peak.

Right now, this artery is so shallow — hydrologists with the National Weather Service say it has dropped to as much as 5 metres below its normal late-summer height — that as many as 20 barges have run aground on barely submerged shoals. That's twice the usual number, and as with breakdowns on busy roads, these can stall river traffic for days.

The barges have to be around 25 per cent lighter, so that they can ride higher in the water. So not only is river traffic slower, but the volume of freight carried has been reduced.

Barges have been a fixture of Mississippi river life. At 65 or 95 metres long by 15 or 11 metres wide, and with a depth of seven metres, most have a capacity of around 1,400 tonnes. When linked together, they are known as a tow. On the 1,600km of the so-called Lower Mississippi, the most heavily travelled stretch of the river, a tow may consist of 30 or 40 barges, lashed together, usually three or four abreast and pushed by one towboat with an engine generating 1,800 to 6,000hp; that's a procession of freight as long as your average goods train, but not nearly as maneuverable.

The passage of these water trains appears effortless, until the push boat passes. Behind it, the water froths explosively as the ergs are forced into turning a six-blade propeller measuring more than three metres in diameter.

“The river rose all day / The river rose all night / Some people got lost in the flood / Some people got away alright”

It makes for a slow, noisy journey.

THE FIRST STEAMBOAT on the Mississippi was launched in 1811. A private company negotiated a concession for sole operating rights on the river, but this was soon contested in court, where the complaint was upheld.

And not just upheld, but the court declared "that the Mississippi River was the heritage of the people and that neither Congress nor any state legislature had the right to give control of its navigation to any person or company".

New Orleans profited from the steamboats and the river; from around 1810, it was the wealthiest city in the land. It was also the hub and lifeblood of hunters, trappers and fishermen downstream.

A century or so later, when the city was incorrectly deemed to be under threat from the great flood of 1927, a protective levee sheltering these people would be dynamited to lower the level of the water.

Politics, blunt, brutal and self-interested, is also part of the lore of the river.

The Mississippi was originally called Mech-e-se-be, the name it was given by the Algonquin tribe of American Indians, and which means Great Waters, or Father of Waters. The current spelling came from the journal entry of a Jesuit missionary, Allouez, in the mid-17th century.

<p>Mario Tama/Getty</p>

Mario Tama/Getty

The river breaks its banks, flooding a highway near Vicksburg, Mississippi, May 2011

The river first appeared on a map sent to Charles V in 1520 by the Spanish explorer, Hernan Cortez. The map showed a forked stream entering the Gulf of Mexico. Cortez called it Rio de Spiritu Sanctu, or River of the Holy Ghost.

Some accounts of the river were more prosaic. In his 1923 book Mississippi Valley Beginnings, an account of a journey by boat from New Orleans to St. Louis, historian Henry E. Chambers made note of its 390 bends.

Rather more lyrical was Mark Twain, who even took his nom-de-plume from a term used to measure river depth — if a boatman called out "Mark Twain!", he meant the measure (mark) of the river at that point was two (twain) fathoms. Twain described a trip downsteam in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: "Sometimes we'd have the whole river to ourselves for the longest time. Yonder was the banks and the islands, across the water; and maybe a spark — which was a candle in a cabin window; and sometimes on the water you could see a spark or two on a raft or scow, you know, and maybe you could hear a fiddle or a song coming over from one of them crafts. It is lovely to live on a raft."

The Raleys, father and son, have seen the river swing between two opposite worst-case scenarios. Asked to describe this, it's as though they know it — they live with it, after all — but they can't quite explain it.

"It's a mysterious, uncontrollable being," Jeremy says. "I'm not up to par with what-all goes on, but we've forced the river to stay within certain channels and it naturally doesn't want to do that, and it's got us to this point. I don't know."

"Last year, it was a foot from going over the levee," Mark adds. "The sheer force of it, you have a lot of respect for it. It's kind of like a woman. You don't understand it, but it's intriguing.

"We're on Mars, and there are still things about the river we don't understand. For the most part, we take it for granted."

Read more Gerard Wright stories on the Republican Party's quadrennial carnival of conservatism, the questions asked — and avoided — in the wake of another tragic gun rampage, and an Arizona nursing home trying an alternative, soul-based approach to treating dementia.

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