Drought: Bad for your wallet in more ways than one

September 26, 2012 | 12:12 pm | , Science and Solutions Director

Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

It’s cooling down in many parts of the U.S., but the worst drought in decades is still going on. Just when you think the news about the drought can’t get any worse, here’s something else to worry about: A lot of things you buy are about to get more expensive.

Every year, barges and other vessels carry more than 500 million tons of freight around the U.S. via a network of rivers and lakes. They transport everything from bananas, to car parts, to plastic containers. But this year, the main artery of that network is in trouble. The Mississippi River is having one of its driest years on record, and the shipping industry is paying the price.

Take, for example, the recent slowdown just north of St. Louis. Emergency repairs were needed after barges repeatedly smacked into a part of the lock that normally would be well underwater. The repairs halted traffic for days, holding up more than 500 barges and vessels carrying the equivalent of more than 26,000 truckloads of cargo.

The situation isn’t much better in the Great Lakes. There, water levels are up to 25 inches lower than normal due to a lack of winter ice cover and the dry summer. Shippers lighten the loads of vessels to avoid running aground, which means more trips to carry the same amount of cargo.

Ultimately, consumers like you and me will pick up part of the tab for delays and more trips. And we could be in for a rough ride: This dirty weather is set to continue through at least the end of the year.