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Mississippi River at Memphis expected to fall again

The NWS said the river reached -10.71 feet in October, beating the record low stage for the Mississippi River at Memphis of -10.7 feet, set in July 1988.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. โ€” The Mississippi River has been low for several weeks now due to a lack of rain in the Mid-South and Midwest. Barge traffic has been affected with many vessels struggling to make the commute up and down the river due to the low water.

Latest river levels and forecast

As of Wednesday morning, November 23th, 2022, the Mississippi River at Memphis was at a stage of -0.41 feet, according to the National Weather Service.

The river reached a record low point of -10.79 feet on Monday, October 17th. 

Recent rains in the Memphis area and especially upstream brought the river level up several feet recently. Now, levels are expected to gradually fall again through the middle of December.

In Memphis, the Mississippi River is considered to be low if the stage falls below 5 feet. Monday afternoon's level passed the record low stage of -10.7 feet, which occurred in July 1988.

Other gauges in the area including Tiptonville, Osceola, Tunica, and Helena are reporting similarly low levels.

How can the Mississippi River level be negative?

The "zero" level on the gauge is arbitrary - meaning, for lack of a better term, it's random. This zero level was chosen hundreds of years ago and was never updated, even as the gauge was relocated and the bottom of the river channel changed.

Because of this, the zero level on the gauge isn't actually the bottom of the river. Even when the river level falls below zero on the gauge, the river is still 20-30 feet deep in the middle.

What causes the river levels to fluctuate?

In general, rainwater and runoff play a large part in changing our river level.

But, it's not necessarily rain in Memphis that will cause the river to rise here. Since the river is constantly flowing downstream, rain needs to fall north of Memphis in states like Illinois and Missouri to see our river level rise.

In spring, river levels typically rise as snow melts in the northern United States, with that water filtering into the river.


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