The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that only seven percent of the country is currently covered by snow, the lowest percentage in recorded history.
This is not good news considering that 60.2 percent of the contiguous United States was still under moderate to extreme drought conditions at the end of October, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
By early next month, a shallower Mississippi River may impair navigation between St. Louis and Cairo, IL. This comes at the end of harvest in the Midwest, and it is estimated that if the river shuts down, more than $2 billion in agricultural commodities, such as corn and wheat, will be at risk.
This news came as the America's Wetland Foundation (AWF) held The Big River Lives in St. Louis, the third of five national leadership forums dedicated to improving the Mississippi River's health and sustainability through more cooperative management.
Speaking at the forum, Nancy Stoner, Acting Assistant Administrator for Water with the Environmental Protection Agency urged the diverse group of more than five dozen national leaders and experts to come together and identify common goals for the river, a message that was repeated throughout the day.
"Our economies have been built on our waterways, on our natural resources," she said. "And we need to keep getting the word out. Infrastructure is often talked about, but water and water resources need to be a focus."
Illinois State Climatologist, Dr. Jim Angel told the group that 80 percent of the upper Missouri and Mississippi Basins are struggling with drought and the recovery will be long and slow.
J. David Rogers, Ph.D., the Karl F. Hasselmann Chair in Geological Engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, who gave an overview of some of the river's problems from top to bottom said
He said, "When I was a student, everyone blamed everything on communism, now we blame sea-level rise and other factors. But we're dealing with aging infrastructure, which means we have an engineering problem, and it's a serious one."
"We're not proactive in how we manage the river," Rogers continued. "This system is getting ready to bounce out of its engineered channel and go somewhere else. And when it does, it's going to be a huge mess. We all need to be concerned about this. The bulk of products and goods from America's Heartland are shipped out of Louisiana ports - about $10 Billion a year - and the Mississippi is also the storm drain for 41 percent of America."
Tom Christensen, who heads up the Central region of the country for the Natural Resources Conservation service said the importance of agriculture in the Mississippi Basin is huge
For example, 86 percent of water used to produce the nation's corn and soybeans comes from the Mississippi River Basin, which produces 92 percent of U.S. agricultural exports.
Christensen was on hand to discuss how the NRCS, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, works with farmers throughout the river basin to improve water quality in the river, in part by reducing fertilizer and other runoff from crop fields.
Although nitrogen, phosphorus and various nutrients from upriver are the primary cause of a seasonal hypoxic - or, dead zone - that starves huge tracts of the Gulf of Mexico of oxygen, choking off marine life, Christensen noted that significant progress is being made by the farming community to address hypoxia.
Robert Twilley, Ph.D., Executive Director, Louisiana Sea Grant College Program; Professor of Oceanography & Coastal Sciences, Louisiana State University, said that we have to come together as a region and establish connectivity between the upstream and the downstream.
Twilley pointed out that a coalition of land grant universities might be a natural framework for cooperation in the watershed.
"The challenges facing the Gulf Coast reflect a national inability to come to grips with the need to deal with neglected infrastructure, both natural and man built," said Twilley, who cited an 1897 National Geographic feature that debunked the notion that Mississippi Delta deterioration is the result of unintended consequences.
The century-old article described how levees would cut off nutrients and sediments from the Delta, leading to coastal degradation and massive land loss.
"We don't have a challenge, we have a national problem," said Twilley.
For additional information about The Big River Works, upcoming events and to register for future forums, visit www.bigriverworks.com.