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Mississippi River Cruise Industry Impacted by Low-Water Levels

Mac Gordon

Donuts on Cake

Ol’ Man River hasn’t done a very good job lately of just keeping on rolling along.

The Mississippi River, memorialized by Oscar Hammerstein’s 1927 masterpiece, perhaps sung most famously by Paul Robeson and Frank Sinatra, faces frustrating problems on its journey that begins as a trickle at Lake Itasca in Minnesota and normally roars 2,350 miles through 10 states before entering the Gulf of Mexico, 100 miles south of New Orleans. But, things aren’t normal.

In most times “Big Muddy” is among the planet’s foremost bodies of water. Recent periods of both flooding and drought, plus (not recent) pollution on the waterway have caused constant consternation in the shipping, transportation and travel industries.

The Daily Memphian newspaper’s Keely Brewer and the Mississippi Today news group reported that a renewed river cruise enterprise needs consistently higher water to remain viable. The industry had enjoyed a decade of success until a low-water fiasco last year created anxiety about its future.

Viking, perhaps the world’s leading river cruise line, planned a voyage last fall from New Orleans to St. Paul, Minnesota. It reached only as far upriver as Greenville, Mississippi, before cutting the engines due to low water. Passengers were bused to Memphis for a disappointing trip home.

The firm also canceled a return trip from St. Paul for the same reason, with climate change – seemingly denied by everybody but one-time Democratic presidential hopeful Al Gore and God – labeled as the main culprit.

A federal agency is predicting low water stages for planned trips this fall – likely good news for cotton and soybean farmers in the Lower Mississippi Delta who have suffered flooding woes on the mother river and her tributaries many times. That shouldn’t be a problem this harvesting season.

High water situations also have forced a long-sought federal decision to build huge drainage pumps to rid flooding when it occurs in the south Delta.

Barge traffic was for many years a financial mainstay of Mississippi’s river-hugging cities and a boost to the state’s overall economy. Some of the grain shippers have turned to the flourishing trucking industry to get products to market because of low-water measurements on the river, often causing the boats to run aground.

Certainly river cruises have a special allure as a tourist destination, particularly to the more mature generation of travelers – say, the 55-and-up crowd – who want to visit parts of the nation otherwise hard to reach.

Cruises can be expensive undertakings on some lines, but they are a unique vacation or holiday weekend outing as most waterway travelers are first-timers. The vessels tend to land close to downtown areas at stops like Memphis, Tunica, Clarksdale, Greenville, Vicksburg and Natchez.

Those Mississippi cities (let’s just claim Memphis as ours) offer imaginative restaurants and museums that feature old and new life in this state. Civil War history displays are prominent in all of them. They also offer an array of gambling opportunities, as some states haven’t legalized popular sports-betting like Mississippi has done.

“... Hundreds of cruise-goers sprawled across Tunica … Some crossed the gangway and made a right for a Mississippi River museum; others headed inland for a brief stop at the casinos that put the area on the map,” said the recent news report.

One survey expects the river cruise market to grow an astounding 21-percent from this year through 2030. It seems, however, that the future might depend on some positive climate change to help the burgeoning industry along.

It’s probably time for God and Mr. Gore to step front and center again if river cruising is to remain financially stable.

Donuts on Cake
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