Army Corps of Engineers equipment on the Mississipi River. On the right, the Anheuser House overlook is visible many feet above the river.

Army Corps of Engineers equipment on the Mississipi River. On the right, the Anheuser House overlook is visible many feet above the river.

How dry we are.

Jefferson County, particularly the southern part, has been locked into a drought for much of the year, along with much of the Midwest, and its effects will reach us all, experts say.

“Looking at the big picture, the ongoing drought that we’re in really started at the beginning of summer,” said Erin Fanning, director of the Water Resources Center for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. “We’ll likely continue to feel the effects of it in some way or the other for a while.”

Long-term effects include rising food prices and supply chain issues, along with brown lawns, trees and shrubbery.

Fanning said her center is focusing on two main areas of concern – agricultural and river transport.

“It’s not a stretch to consider that a long period of dryness affects the agricultural community,” she said. “But we’re seeing the double whammy of it also affecting the commerce on our big rivers. And understand, this is not a local issue – this is a regional issue all over the Midwest.”

Fortunately, Fanning said, drinking water is not drying up.

“We’re not seeing any significant water supply issues at this time,” she said. “There appears to be no significant impact to our aquifers that we have seen.”

Fanning said the long-term effects of the drought are tied to the weather forecast.

“If we have a dry winter, we will be setting up for a struggle into 2023,” she said.

River commerce

Jim McNichols, executive director of the Jefferson County Port Authority, said navigating the Mississippi River is problematic these days.

“It’s a difficult issue for us right now. To visualize the problem, you have to know that the river channel for the Mississippi River is not straight down the middle, as you might expect. It meanders from side to side.”

The Port Authority oversees two ports, one at Kimmswick that opened in 2021 to accommodate riverboat visits, and a freight depot to be developed at Herculaneum.

“At Kimmswick,” McNichols said, “there’s a big problem getting to that port. The last measurement I had was that it was 84 feet from the edge of our dock to the river’s edge, and there, it’s probably only a half-foot deep. It’s a difficult situation.”

Cory Schuh, the Port Authority’s deputy director, said 13 riverboats were scheduled to make one-day stops at Kimmswick this year.

“But because of the low water since early summer, only five of them were successful,” he said.

While talks are underway for 2023 landings, he said, a schedule has not been set.

“Right now at Herculaneum, if the vessel container port were up and running, there would be no problem getting to it,” McNichols said.

American Patriot Holdings plans to establish a port at Herculaneum for its specialized barges that will carry large metal shipping containers from around the world up the Mississippi River, with plans to open by late 2024.

McNichols said low river levels can occur during the summer and early fall, but usually not this late into the year.

He said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is maintaining a 9-foot deep channel in the Mississippi, but it isn’t all that wide.

“In normal times,” he said, “you might have barges that go up the river side-by-side. But now, they have to go up single file, and a barge operator may have to dock some of the barges by the side of the river and come back later and bring them up. It’s a time-consuming and costly problem for them.”

In addition, barge operators are not loading them fully to ensure that they stay afloat, Schuh said.

“So far, we’re not expecting a total closure of the river, which happened five or six years ago,” McNichols said.

But, Fanning said, all the issues with getting product up and down the river will exacerbate an all-too-familiar problem.

“This will definitely cause supply-chain problems,” she said.

Kimmswick feels the pinch

Kimmswick Mayor Phil Stang said the tourist town is feeling the effects of the low river level.

“The riverboat operators estimate that when their boats dock, their passengers spend $125 to $150 each (with much of that spent in Kimmswick), so we’ve missed out on eight dockings.”

Some of the boats can accommodate up to 400 passengers.

“But the effect is greater than that,” Stang said. “With the seven dockings we’ve had so far, we’ve noticed that people from the area come to Kimmswick to see the boats. And once they’re here, they spend money in our restaurants and our shops.”

Trees, lawns, gardens suffer

Debi Kelly, field specialist in horticulture at the University Extension Service in Hillsboro, said residents who maintain lawns, plant gardens or simply have a tree or two in their yards are being affected by the drought, which she said in Jefferson County has affected the southern part, including the Festus, Hillsboro and De Soto areas, the hardest.

She said most lawns in Jefferson County consist of cool-season grass.

“Usually, what you’ll find is that with cool season grass, your lawn begins to grow in early spring, and at least parts of it will go dormant in the hot summer days, then come back to life in the fall,” she said.

However, she said, last year’s relatively dry winter prevented the natural growth of grass in the spring, so by the time the drought hit, common varieties of grass were already in bad shape because the roots hadn’t fully grown deep enough.

“Your lawn has to be rejuvenated,” she said. “In early March, that will be the time to overseed. Hopefully, homeowners will come to us to get a soil test to determine which nutrients and fertilizers your lawn really needs. We have a calendar for lawn care on our website.”

Trees, Kelly said, are the largely forgotten factor in the typical yard.

“People usually think that a tree’s roots go deep into the ground, but that’s not the case,” she said. “Most of the root system for a tree go only about 12 inches into the soil, and then grow parallel to the surface of the ground.

“If you haven’t been watering your trees this year,” she said, “you’re going to see the effects next year.”

Kelly said with healthy trees, “they may not leaf out as much next year. If they’re a flowering tree, you won’t see as much of that.”

If a tree was already showing signs of stress before the drought, she said, you might see dead branches.

Kelly suggested that homeowners water their trees throughout the winter.

“If you don’t have a hose handy, you can get a five-gallon bucket of water and poke 1/8th-inch holes in the bottom. Fill it up with water and put it at the tree’s drip line, which is as far out as the branches go. You can put one bucket at the 12 o’clock and one at 6 o’clock, and then the next time at 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock,” she said.

Alternately, she said, you can take your hose out to the drip line and set it to drizzle.

“Set the timer on your phone for an hour, and then go out and move the hose from 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock, and then from 3 o’clock to 9 o’clock,” she said.

“The slow introduction of water (from the bucket or the hose) allows it to infiltrate the soil. If you just pour the bucket out, it will run off rather than soak in,” Kelly said.

“You can do this throughout the winter, but not when the ground is frozen,” she said.

For more information, visit extension.missouri.edu/counties/jefferson.

Down on the farm

Kendra Graham, field specialist in livestock for the University Extension Service, said the drought has hit Jefferson County farmers hard.

“Most of the farms in Jefferson County are small, family operations,” she said. “Most of them in the southern portion, which has been affected more by the drought, are cattle operations.”

Graham said because cattle farmers feared a shortage of hay by mid-summer, they took more of their stock to market this year.

“The forecast was that the hay market would be 40 percent short,” she said. “Couple that with rising costs for other inputs, such as fuel, fertilizer and equipment – if you can even get that equipment.”

So, Graham said, “in Jefferson County, and really statewide, farmers were selling a lot of their cows. And not just the older ones. This will obviously affect what goes on in future years with beef prices.”

“Most of the farms in this area maybe have 25 or 30 head, so they’re not large business operations. That means they can’t sustain long periods of losing money,” Graham said. “Even the best of them who can get a line of credit from a bank will end up paying more in interest in the long term.”

Crop producers, she said, are hit hard when it’s dry.

“Farmers here may have harvested a less-than-expected crop of corn, then planted wheat for the winter and they’re finding it’s not coming up at all,” she said.

Graham said those seeking a less volatile livestock market may consider raising goats.

“I think goats offer a great opportunity,” she said. “They’re getting high prices at market, and they graze differently than cattle. They will eat what the cattle won’t. They’re comfortable in areas that can’t be otherwise farmed.”

The downside, Graham said, is that demand for goat meat isn’t the same as it is for cattle.

“Around here, people don’t think of goats as edible animals. And, kind of like deer, it’s a challenging meat to cook because it’s so lean. While veal is more acceptable, sheep require more maintenance, like having to provide shelter for them.”

Graham said the drought may hasten the loss of family farms.

“The average age of farmers in this area is going steadily up,” she said. “We’re not seeing new people coming into it. Land prices are also a factor, with the prices of pastureland going up 27 percent over the last year and crop ground up 31 percent. It’s hard to get people to consider farming with these high land prices.”

And, Graham said, the low levels on the Mississippi are yet another problem to add to a small farmer’s woes.

“They can’t get fertilizer shipped up from the South, and they can’t fulfill their contracts to ship their product out,” she said.

“There are really lots of moving parts to this drought,” she said.

Report your drought issues

Fanning said the state is encouraging residents to report their drought problems.

“Because a picture is worth 1,000 words, we want you to upload pictures of a dry field, trees withering, ponds with the water level going down so we can document local effects,” she said.

The link to submit a report is droughtimpacts.unl.edu/Tools/ConditionMonitoringObservations.aspx.