Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome back to The Takeaway. It's MHP. Now, if you were to take a walk along the Mississippi River right now, you might come across some peculiar sites, discarded cars, a 19th-century shipwreck, maybe even human remains. That's because due to persistent drought throughout the central states, the Mississippi's water level has reached record lows. According to the National Weather Service, this is a problem likely to continue.
Jason Knouft: I'm Jason Knouft. I'm a professor in the Department of Biology at Saint Louis University and a principal investigator at the WATER Institute at Saint Louis University. The year-to-year variation are things that I think we've just become accustomed to. Maybe in the spring when we're getting more rainfall, you see the river level's a little bit higher. In the summer when it's warmer and more evaporation is occurring, you see rivers being a little bit lower.
I think, generally, our rivers and streams have become a little bit of a background to our daily lives, and so we don't really notice it until we get these extreme events where there are droughts or maybe floods.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's talk about this as an extreme event. Just how low is the Mississippi River right now?
Jason Knouft: It's extremely low, and the Mississippi River and the entire watershed covers a huge area of the US. Some areas are lower than others. There are certainly areas in the Mississippi right now that are as low as they've ever been, but generally speaking, across the entire basin, waters are lower than usual.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Remind us of the importance of the Mississippi River, where it begins, where it ends, and in certain ways, how it shaped who we are as a country.
Jason Knouft: It's really been the lifeblood of our country for hundreds of years. It starts up in the northern part of the US. Headwaters reach all the way up to Yellowstone National Park with the Missouri River, flows all the way down to Louisiana to the Gulf of Mexico.
It's an incredibly important source of travel, trade, energy production. It's responsible for our agricultural productivity. I like to say that water touches every part of our lives and the Mississippi is really at the core of the Midwestern US and much of the economic and social productivity that we see across the country.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me a little bit about the commerce aspect, because it continues to serve in that way. These low water levels are meaningful for our actual economy.
Jason Knouft: Sure. The supply chain issue I think is something that people don't really think about as much or hear about as much, but it's an incredibly important source of agricultural transport from the Midwestern region down to Louisiana.
To put numbers on it, the cost of transporting corn and soybeans since the beginning of October has quadrupled from Saint Louis down to Louisiana. Last week, there were over 1,500 barges that were stranded down in Louisiana because of low water levels. We look at the river, but most of us don't see it as the important supply chain that it is. When we get these low water situations, it's really, really disruptive to economic activities.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How alarmed are scientists right now about the current low levels given that there is this kind of year-to-year fluctuation?
Jason Knouft: This is extreme. Speaking as a scientist, I don't think scientists are particularly alarmed in the sense that these are the types of extremes that we expect in a changing climate. In many ways, it's just a verification of some of the things that we're expecting in the coming years.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes. Also, aren't expecting in the coming years for earth to be over? I'm sorry, you haven't made me less alarmed by saying that this is what we expect given climate change.
Jason Knouft: I don't mean to be a doom and gloom, but with climate change, I-- and I'm going to turn this into something positive for you. With climate change, we expect greater variability. I think people often think about increasing air temperatures, but we're going to see more extremes. I think what we need to be doing is being proactive and thinking about, "Okay, if we see these extremes, how are we going to manage them and how do we deal with them?"
I truly think, one, that we're headed on the right path in terms of reducing our emissions, and we need to do more work there. These challenging times, I think, are moments where we see really the great innovation. I think this is the opportunity for greatness in terms of figuring out how humans can better live in a sustainable way with the environment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I know you're working with the State Department looking at water security. Talk to me a bit about the Mississippi River's low levels within the context of water security.
Jason Knouft: We think about water security in the context of the fact that, again, water touches pretty much everything we deal with. When we're thinking about water security, we're thinking about food security, we're thinking about energy security, all of these areas that rely on water. Without water security, we've got potential energy problems. We've got less water to irrigate our crops, we've got disruptions to our supply chains.
When our water security is threatened, then it has this cascading effect on all other aspects of the environment that then can disrupt our social systems. I study water, so I'm a little biased, but we really need to get water right to support all these other aspects, food, energy, social systems. It's really at the core of what we need to be thinking about.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Are there things that our listeners can do that we can do that make any difference on an issue of such enormous scale and importance?
Jason Knouft: Get ready, but every drop counts. It's important for us to just be more aware of our water. In the Mississippi River Basin, we're spoiled because water has not been the same issue that it has been in other parts of the country. I think we just need to have it more on our minds, and we need to be thinking of ways to convince politicians that water is not just something flowing through our rivers that's coming out of our taps. Water drives our economy, it provides us food. It's really tied to everything we do.
I think that's one of the issues that really gets lost in the climate and water conversation. These are not just issues of access and comfort related to warming temperatures. These are truly issues that are going to hit people's pocketbooks. Food prices will increase, energy prices may increase. I think people need to get out and really become engaged in voting in a way that serves their economic interests, which is the conservation of these resources.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jason Knouft is a professor of biology at Saint Louis University and principal investigator at Saint Louis University's WATER Institute. Again, thanks so much for your time today.
Jason Knouft: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We've got some pretty unbelievable pictures for you about what's happening in the Mississippi. They're on our IG account, so go take a look at The Takeaway.
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