PERRY COUNTY — Kenny Grass’ father used to tell a story.
“When we were kids, my dad told us that the Mississippi River would sometimes freeze over and you could drive across it,” Grass told me.
We were standing Tuesday on the limestone rock bridge that connects the banks of the river here with Tower Rock. We were drawn to the landmark noted by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark because, as it was in the time of Grass’ father, the river water is very low after an extended drought.
Thousands of folks are making the trek down the dusty, gravel path next to the railroad tracks that run parallel with the river. They want to experience a phenomenon that rarely happens, so they can tell their kids, and their kids after them. Tower Rock, also known as the Grand Tower, is normally surrounded on all sides by the rushing water of the Mississippi River. It is now connected to the river bank by a limestone bridge. It went from island to isthmus.
Grass and his wife, Barb, live in St. Genevieve, as their families have for several generations. So they are in tune with the river’s ups and its downs, its power and its beauty. Their son is 49. He was a teenager when they brought him here the last time the water in the Mississippi River was so low that you could walk across the natural limestone bridge and its stratified steps, seemingly carved by the water to mark the eons. They couldn’t recall the year.
“I have pictures at home,” Barb says.
Phyllis McDowell remembers it, too: “It was 1988.”
She brought her kids here to walk to the tower that year. McDowell, who lives in Caruthersville, deep in Missouri’s Bootheel, came back this year with fellow members of the Pemiscot County Historical Society.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event,” says Renee DeMott, who drove from South St. Louis County with her husband, Steve. Even though they’ve navigated Interstate 55 between St. Louis and Cape Girardeau for decades, it was their first time at Tower Rock.
As we talked, a tugboat pushed a barge of grain — likely soybeans or corn — past the east side of Tower Rock, in the channelized part of the river where there is still enough water to navigate. The juxtaposition — water there, but not here — is a telling one.
The drought is the talk of the agricultural community, as barges have been grounded at various places along the river due to low water. They are backed up and having to run lighter. That means paying more to truck grain or fertilizer over the road, or sending it by rail. And that has some commercial river interests calling for more dredging, more man-made efforts to increase the flow of water. Ideas include deeper channels or more wing dikes, the rock formations that increase the speed of the water flowing by.
That’s the wrong solution, says Mike Clark. He’s the founder of Big Muddy Adventures, and he’s paddled the river more than anybody I know.
He’s taken me out in high water to show the mistakes the powerful folks who try to control the river — Congress, the Army Corps of Engineers, the commercial barge industry — have made. Speeding up the water and deepening its channels, decisions often made during time of drought, make future flooding worse. There is a balance to the river that must be maintained, Clark says. It cannot be tamed.
The mistakes “become glaring during the extremes,” he says.
That’s what scares Barb Grass. She and her husband spent some time this summer traveling out West, where the drought is much worse than the Midwest. There, the Colorado River is running dry, and the various states that thirst for its water are employing serious rationing for the first time in a generation. She’s heard talk that has been around a long time of the West trying to tap the water in the Missouri or Mississippi through a pipeline.
“It scares us,” she says.
Such is the nature of drought. Fear drives action. But during the age of climate change, when droughts and floods come much faster than in previous generations, one year’s reaction can become next year’s overreaction.
That’s why the nonprofit environmental group American Rivers included the Mississippi River on its list of most endangered rivers this year. The organization is encouraging the Environmental Protection Agency to create a Mississippi River-centric office. It would drive funding toward natural projects for states along the river to deal with climate change issues, such as extreme drought.
The constant man-made tinkering over the past century, and trying to harness that which cannot be tamed, puts the river’s delicate ecosystem in danger. The river, for instance, hasn’t frozen over since early in the 20th Century because a series of dams and locks forever changed its flow.
Olivia Dorothy, the director of restoration at American Rivers, hopes the folks flocking to Tower Rock appreciate what they are seeing. The same marker that guided explorers more than a century ago can guide us today.
“For a century, we’ve seen the Mississippi River as little more than a highway for bulk commodities,” Dorothy says. “And we continue to make deliberate decisions to shift goods onto the river based on a myth that river transportation is good for the environment. In reality, all the navigation infrastructure has wreaked havoc on the river’s ecosystem.”
For a few days in 2022, that means there is no water covering the natural limestone bridge connecting to Tower Rock, which makes for a memorable moment in history.
But up and down the river, there are other places like this, where the loss of a side channel or backwater can affect local habitat. It can also disconnect the river from its wetlands, which will really matter when the rains return.
The view of the river atop the Grand Tower “is particularly beautiful,” Lewis, the explorer, wrote in 1803.
Keeping it that way is this generation’s grand challenge.
Tony Messenger • 314-340-8518
@tonymess on Twitter