VICKSBURG, Miss. (AP) - Drought conditions are contributing to Mississippi River levels that may not be the lowest they've ever been but are still cause for concern.
"We've had barges running aground, shoaling in a few places. We've had some groundings but none have resulted in a major incident yet. There have been no injuries," Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Rebecca Walthour told The Clarion-Ledger (http://on.thec-l.com/P5nktB ).
She said the Coast Guard has asked mariners to report it when their vessels touch the bottom of the river in any capacity.
"When silt builds up, it can build a sandbar or a high spot in the bottom of the river," Walthour said. "Normally it's not there, and the boats aren't expecting it, and unfortunately they'll find it with the bottom of the barge or the boat. It has potential to have some big issues."
At 4.86 feet in Vicksburg, the Mississippi River is 52 feet below where it was on May 19, 2011, at the height of last year's historic flooding.
It is about 37 feet below the record high for July 2, which was also last year, and about 18 feet below the average for this time of year.
If the channel gets too narrow where barges are reporting too much grounding or unable to pass each other, the Coast Guard will have to institute one-way traffic, Walthour said. But usually the barge operators will self-regulate their travel and their weight load.
"I wouldn't say it's a crisis, but it is something we obviously continue to monitor," Walthour said. "I know industry folks aren't happy because they can't push as much up and down the river as they want to, but obviously we can't make it rain, and we can't put water in the river. We're getting to historical lows here."
At Natchez, the river is at 12.72 feet, about 49 feet below what was the record high on May 19 of last year.
Adams County Emergency Management Agency Director Stan Owens said it's not the lowest he remembers, but it's pretty low.
"Our gauge at its lowest was like a 0.3, but I don't remember what year that was," he said. "It's pretty shallow right now. The channels have narrowed dramatically."
Mississippi Emergency Management Agency Director Robert Latham said the drought conditions are a part of what's causing the low level of the river, but it's also determined by things well outside Mississippi's area.
"When you look back at this past winter, one of the things that impacts us is the snow pack and the melt that causes the fluctuation in the river levels," he said. "We didn't have that snow pack that we had over a year ago."
The National Weather Service said the river stages are generally dictated not only by the melting snow from the North but also by rainfall in places like the Ohio River Valley. It doesn't look to improve anytime soon, officials said.
John Elfer, director of the Emergency Management Agency in Warren County, said, "The low river stage has affected traffic from the passenger vessel the American Queen between New Orleans and Memphis. It's not able to come up the Yazoo Canal and dock at the city (Vicksburg)."
The 418-foot-long paddle-wheel steamboat, the largest of its kind in the world, was christened in May in Memphis; it travels the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.
Owens said he thought the American Queen had problems in St. Francisville, La., as well, and had to lay over longer than expected in Natchez.
Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, http://www.clarionledger.com