When a vessel ran aground in a stretch of the Mississippi River on August 11, many hoped it would be a singular, solitary incident. Unfortunately, the opposite has proven true. Today alone, thanks to low water levels caused by severe drought, there were 40 northbound and 57 southbound vessels stranded and waiting for passage in the iconic river.

Eleven miles of the river have been closed thanks to the low water levels. U.S. Coast Guard spokesman, Ryan Tippets, said that it was not clear yet when the river would reopen. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is digging out sand to try to deepen the channel so that barges carrying coal, steel and other products can pass through. Even with that effort, however, shippers are complaining that they need to unload cargo to lighten their loads and prevent hitting the riverbed. With less on board, the shippers will collect less revenue but maintain the same costs for labor and fuel.

Frank Segree, a captain of one of the dredges cutting into the river bottom, said he is performing a critical but unnoticed job to keep the country running. “If we lose the river system,” he said, “it’s just like losing the interstate highway system.”

The low water levels – near Memphis the river was more than 12 feet lower than typical for this time of year – are just another sign of the impact of this summer’s drought. For all of the climate change skeptics (ahem, Paul Ryan) who posit that environmental protection should never be given at the expense of economic growth, incidents like these should act as a wake up call: The economy needs a functioning planet in order to grow.

Main photo credit: Shutterstock