Mississippi River levels way down as drought plagues America's Heartland

ST. LOUIS - Parts of the Midwest have seen some rain over the last few days, but it's a drop in the bucket compared to what's needed to cope with the Drought in the Heartland.

It's the worst drought the nation has seen in 50 years.

Two-thirds of the country is now suffering in drought conditions, and the extreme heat is making things worse.

And this hot, dry disaster has taken a huge toll on the Mississippi River.

From Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, the 2,300-mile Mississippi is a critical backbone of American commerce - carrying 60 percent of the nation's grain, 22 percent of us oil and gas, 20 percent of coal - $180 billion of goods in all.

But the drought of 2012 has humbled the Mighty Mississippi.

Steve Fridell has worked on the river nearly a half century. He hasn't seen it like this in almost 25 years.

"When Mother Nature decides it wants to do something, you know it doesn't make any difference what man made," Fridell said. "When it decides it want to take its course, it's gonna take its course."

How hard is this historic drought hitting the Mississippi? Travel down the Maritime Super Highway and see the dramatic drop:

-- In St. Louis, it's down 15 feet, about half its normal level
In Cairo, Illinois, 12 feet lower than normal
-- Farther south in Memphis, it's 17 feet below normal level
-- And in the port of Vicksburg, Mississippi, river levels are off by 21 feet.

Low water means less cargo in each barge to help them ride higher in the water--hauling empty space. But costs don't go down.

"It takes up the same amount of fuel to burn and the same amount of manpower to operate this vessel that we're on," says Ed Henleben, with the Ingram Barge Company.

It also means a narrower river channel, turning the Mississippi into a one-way street. Barges heading north have to wait for traffic heading south--sometimes delaying shipments by days. And delays cost money.

It just means higher costs that will eventually work their way back to the consumer.

During the last big drought in 1988, the Mississippi got so shallow that barge traffic ground to a halt.

Gary LaGrange is the CEO at the Port of New Orleans. He says if the river shuts down, there's a negative economic impact of $290 million a day, "and it grows exponentially after the fourth day."