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Mississippi Drought Explained: Why Are Rivers Drying Up?

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The Mississippi River is currently experiencing a historic drought, with water levels hitting record lows in many places. What's more, the riverbeds are drying up one by one, right before the eyes of the more than 20 million people who use the daily drinking water the Mississippi provides.

However, the situation across the United States is dire. About 80% of the country's surface is experiencing abnormal to moderate dryness. Some also experienced extreme and unusual drought, with the entire county experiencing a D4 level of drought.

The big question for the aforementioned 20 million Americans is: Why did the Mississippi River dry up ? We provide some insight on this issue here.

Where does the Mississippi River get its water from?

Lake Itasca 2
The Mississippi River is fed by Lake Itasca in Clearwater County in northern Minnesota.

© Tomaz Kunst/Shutterstock.com

The river is fed by Lake Itasca in Clearwater County in northern Minnesota. This location is known as the traditional water source of the river. Related to the topic at hand is the level of drought in Minnesota.

Currently, 16 percent of the state is experiencing severe drought and about 50 percent are experiencing moderate or worse drought. Historically, Minnesota's 2022 drought has been at the same level (actually slightly worse) than 2021.

As for Clearwater County, 30 percent of its surface is experiencing moderate drought. The problem is that 30% of it (in the south of the county) includes Lake Itasca, the source of the Mississippi River. From a historical perspective, it could have been worse. At this time in 2021, about half of Clearwater County is experiencing severe drought (the Drought Intensity and Coverage Index is about 100 points higher than last year).

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However, while the drought in Minnesota is one of the reasons why the rivers are drying up, it is not the main reason!

How do tributaries affect the water level of a river?

Any freshwater stream that flows into the Mississippi River is called a tributary. The Mississippi River has more than 250 tributaries, each contributing to its water volume. Statistically, the Ohio and Missouri rivers are the main tributaries, along with the Arkansas, Illinois, and Red rivers.

Remember, the Mississippi River basin is the largest watershed in the United States, including its tributaries.

In terms of drought, here's where the main tributaries of the river lie:

  • OHIO RIVER – River levels are declining, largely due to lack of rainfall in the second half of 2022. Meanwhile, the Ohio River runs through the Midwest, which is largely affected by severe drought. The Ohio River dried up completely in 1908 ;
  • Missouri River – According to statistics, more than 90% of the Missouri watershed is abnormally dry. Meanwhile, much of Missouri, which the river runs through, is experiencing unusually severe to moderate drought. Again, one of the main reasons is that it didn't rain.

Both major tributaries of the Mississippi River are in drought conditions, another reason why the former is dry. In short, the Mississippi River isn't soaking up as much water as it used to.

However, drought is normal in the United States. Therefore, record low water levels should not be reached. That means you haven't figured out why the Mississippi River is drying up.

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Why is the Mississippi River drying up?

One of the main reasons the Mississippi River is drying up is climate change.

©Ralf Broskvar/Shutterstock.com

The megadrought currently ravaging much of the western United States is thought to be caused primarily by high temperatures, and implicitly by global warming. The second biggest reason is the lack of rain. About 60% of the US land surface (approximately 87% of the western US) will experience drought in 2023, and some studies suggest that megadroughts may continue until 2030.

So one of the main reasons the Mississippi River is drying up is climate change. For example, the drought in California is entirely attributable to global warming. In contrast, the tributaries of the Mississippi River suffer from a lack of rain and a lot of water.

Statistics show that about 40% of the intensity of megadroughts can be attributed to climate change. The latter also affects how soil moisture is restored by precipitation. Although much of the U.S. has experienced heavy rainfall over the past 22 years, the soil doesn't have enough moisture to restore moisture as temperatures rise.

Some parts of the U.S. territory have been water-scarce since the early 2000s, the data show, even though the country had wet years in 2017, 2010 and 2005.

Historically low water levels on the Mississippi River

Word circulated in late October of how the Tennessee portion of the river dropped as high as -10.75 feet, now the lowest level on record. Speaking of lows, here are the lowest water levels ever recorded for the Mississippi River:

  • On January 16, 1940, water levels in St. Louis reached an all-time low of -6.10 feet;
  • On February 10, 1937, water levels in Memphis (Tennessee) reached an all-time low of -10.70 feet. Currently, this is no longer the lowest water level on record, as the water level will be -10.75 feet in late October 2022 (as above);
  • On February 4, 1964, Greenville (Mississippi) reached an all-time low of 6.70 feet.
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As you can see, the Mississippi River has been at an all-time low for some time. In the case of the Memphis gauge, it can be said that it took about 85 years to break the record.

At present, the water level of Memphis water gauge is still at the lowest level in history. In mid-January 2023, the barometer was -8/73 feet, the fourth lowest on record.


  • The worst drought in human history and what happened after
  • The 3 most devastating consequences of the Mississippi drought
  • Why the Mississippi Valley just suffered its worst drought in 1,200 years

More from AZ Animals

featured image

View of the Mississippi River near Ferryville, Wisconsin
The Mississippi River is one of the longest rivers in the United States at more than 2,300 miles.

© Maarten Daams/Shutterstock.com

about the author

jeremiah wright

I have seven years of professional experience in the content field, focusing on nature and wildlife. Besides writing, I also enjoy surfing the Internet and listening to music.

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