The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is bracing for what could be a historic low levels of water along the Mississippi River that likely would halt barge traffic in the heart of the storied river.
Such a sudden stop would directly impact the American consumer.
"The Mississippi River is the lifeblood of the Gulf and Midwest, so a shutdown of traffic on the river -- whether at the mouth, the middle, or the headwaters -- is a great concern," noted Rep. Jeff Landry, R-La., whose district sits in the lower portion of the river. "If we shut down the river to commerce, we will see higher prices in basic commodities such as food and electricity and fewer jobs for hard-working mariners."
About $7 billion in commodities such as corn, grain, coal and petroleum are set to flow along the river in the months of December and January, according to American Waterways Operators, the trade group that represents barge companies along the river.
A drop in water level could result in barges carrying lighter loads or ceasing operation altogether.
Every inch of freight that barge companies lose equals hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue. The result could be higher prices at the grocery store and at the gas pump.
"So much of what we use in our daily lives has its start on the river, whether we realize it or not," Tom Allegretti, AWO's president and CEO noted in a press release. "Agricultural products are critical exports, but they also fill our grocery stores. Coal that travels on the Mississippi fires our power plants and allows us to have electricity at the flip of a switch."
Allegretti's group was among 16 national organizations that sent President Obama and FEMA a letter this week asking for an emergency declaration to help keep the river open to navigation should levels drop.
With no rain at all, the river's historic low could be reached by Dec. 22, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. Navigation and commerce traffic could be impacted as soon as Dec. 11 near St. Louis -- a critical area where natural rocks beneath the river will become exposed.
The Army Corps has begun a 24-hour operation dredging the river.
Divine intervention could also help. The storms causing havoc in the Pacific Northwest could bring a silver lining for the thirsty river.
"We are extremely hopeful that the rain that is moving into the Upper Pacific Northwest is able to make it into the upper Mississippi watershed to grant us some relief from this extreme drought," said Bob Anderson, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers.
Mother Nature also gave the winding river another temporary reprieve recently amid the aftereffects of Hurricane Sandy. The destructive storm's waters resulted in a bump of about 10 feet of water for the Mississippi.
But for now, all eyes are on the river's levels. If they drop to five feet, that is when limits will be set on loads of goods barges carry. Goods flowing through the middle part of the country will have to be transported via land.
"When you're land-locked, you could only rely on railroads and trucks," said Lynn Muench, AWO's senior vice president. "So you're looking at a lot of people being impacted."