Vicksburg, MS - Drought conditions are contributing to a Mississippi River level that may not be the lowest ever but still is cause for concern.
A sandbar can be seen from the Ameristar Casino here and the I-20 bridge, something not usually visible.
"We've had barges running aground, shoaling in a few places," Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Rebecca Walthour said. "We've had some groundings, but none have resulted in a major incident yet."
If the channel gets too narrow, barges hit bottom or they can't pass each other, the Coast Guard will have to institute one-way traffic, she said.
"It has potential to have some big issues," 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, Miss., about 60 miles downriver from Vicksburg, the Mississippi is at 12.72 feet, about 49 feet below what was the record high on May 19 of last year.
Mississippi's Emergency Management Agency director, Robert Latham, said drought conditions are a part of what's causing the low river level, but other factors also influence.
"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."
That snow pack to the west and north often dictates river levels as it melts because the ground at its source is saturated.
"Usually, this is the beginning of low water season, and we're usually at about 20 (feet) right now," said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Kavanaugh Breazeale of the levels at Vicksburg.
As of Tuesday, the Mississippi at Vicksburg measured 4.79 feet; flood stage is 43 feet, according to the National Weather Service.
Rainfall in places such as the Ohio River valley also affects Mississippi River levels.
"Looking at it up there, it doesn't look like there's any significant imminent rain in the forecast," weather service meteorologist Alan Gerard said. "Overall, the weather pattern is going to stay pretty dry."
Tourism already is affected: The American Queen, a 418-foot-long paddle wheeler that its owners say is the largest steamboat ever built, cruises the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. At the moment, it can't get to Vicksburg's docks, said John Elfer, director of the Warren County Emergency Management Agency.
Director Stan Owens of the Adams County Emergency Management Agency said he thought the American Queen also had problems in St. Francisville, La., about halfway between New Orleans and Vicksburg, and had to lay over longer than expected in Natchez.
Drew Smith, a hydraulic engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers, said the forecast looks like levels should be flattening out instead of continuing to drop, at least here.
"Basically, what we're looking at tells us that on the average, the river stage is higher than this 99 percent of the time," he said.
(Contributing: Gary Pettus, The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger)