A world that is typically hidden beneath the waters has been enjoying the sun along the parched Mississippi River. New islands, shipwreck wrecks, and a large assortment of lost nautical gear have all broken the surface in recent weeks. Barges stranded in the mud or waiting their turn to advance down a constrained route have blocked what little waterway is left. Many residents of the riverside communities have traveled outside, both on foot and by boat, to take in the frightening spectacle.
As drought drops, the water level in the Mississippi, shipwrecks surface, and worries rise.
The drought that has plagued the Midwest for more than five years has lowered the water level in America's most iconic river, exposing dozens of sunken vessels from its banks. The most recent discoveries are a reminder of the perils of navigating a shallow and treacherous frontier. Archaeologists have found 60 to 75 wrecks this year alone from Minnesota to Louisiana, including an 1856 steamer discovered near Memphis, Tennessee; a three-masted Great Lakes schooner found near Helena, Arkansas; and another steamboat pulled up in southern Illinois with an intact cargo hold containing whiskey kegs.
"As the river water level continues to recede, we can expect more of these impacts," said Dirk Hackett, a senior director at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "We haven't seen these types of conditions since the early 1990s."
The ongoing drought has also forced farmers to abandon thousands of acres of farmland, sometimes taking their tractors out into the Mississippi as they wait for water levels to rise again. Meanwhile, it has become so shallow that barges are sitting idle at some dockyards along the river, and federal officials have had to open shipping lanes in places that have rarely been passable.
The drought has affected much of the grain-growing region of the Midwest, with nearly two-thirds of Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri under "severe drought," according to this week's report from the US Drought Monitor.
"This is the most significant drop in water levels in recorded history," said Mike Wissman, president of American Waterways Operators (AWO), a trade association representing more than 400 tow boat operators who travel mainly on America's navigable waters. "There are places where it's not uncommon for boats to get stuck."
The drop in water level has caused a few boats to become stranded and fall apart.
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