Tulane expert weighs in on potential threats of Mississippi River water levels

The Mighty Mississippi is experiencing historic low water levels due to drought, and that has one expert at Tulane University concerned about what it could mean for the environment, food supplies and drinking water.

“First and foremost, barge traffic of food staples from the corn and wheat belt will be held up on their journey to larger container ships in Louisiana’s ports,” said John Sabo, director of the Tulane ByWater Institute and a leading scholar on water resources and river ecology. “This will further impact the global food supply chain, which is already impacted by the war in Ukraine.”

The ByWater Institute is an interdisciplinary center that works to advance applied research and community engagement initiatives around coastal resilience and the urban environmental issues such as industrial pollution, equity of access to drinking water and sanitation and sea level rise.

Sabo, who is also a professor in the Tulane Department Coastal & River Science and Engineering, said he is concerned that salinity levels could have a negative impact on Louisiana seafood and wildlife. He said such is a result of too little freshwater being dumped in from the river and too much water entering from the Gulf of Mexico.

“This impact poses threats to drinking water supplies upriver, fisheries and shellfish and coastal vegetation that grows in the nearshore estuarine brackish waters—a resource that we need locally for protection from the strongest hurricane storms.”

Sabo said it is too soon to tell if the situation is an anomaly or a sign of future hydrologic conditions. While he expects better conditions next year, climate change will likely lead to similar drought conditions in the next decade.

“Land mass draining the Mississippi is enormous and normally drought in one portion is buffered by higher-than-average rainfall in another portion,” Sabo said. He said he does expect that extensive drought in the heartland will eventually become the new normal.

Sabo is available for media interviews. He can be reached at [email protected] or through Tulane’s public relations office at [email protected].