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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A lack of rain in Missouri is causing the navigation season along the Missouri River to end early. 

In July, Gov. Mike Parson declared a drought alert for nearly half of the state following dry conditions and high temperatures. The executive order activated the Drought Assessment Committee under the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. The committee, made up of state and federal agencies, originally focused on agriculture, but now, low water levels are causing navigation concerns. 

“I didn’t hear anything in the forecast that makes us think we’re going to be in a better position Dec. 1 then when we entered into this situation,” said Chris Klenklen, deputy director for the Missouri Department of Agriculture J. during Thursday’s meeting. 

At one point over the summer, about 75% of Missouri was in a drought and more than 30% was in a severe drought. The dry and hot conditions affected one of the state’s number one industries, drying up ponds and leaving little to no grass in some areas for livestock. 

“There a lot of folks who sold hay in the past, that excess, they are holding onto it tight because they are worried about if they are going to have enough,” said Jeremy Mosely, district director for the USDA Farm Service Agency. 

Missouri is home to 95,000 farms and is third in the nation for beef cows. During this executive order, The Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Conservation have provided drought maps and information for access to water for farmers on the departments’ websites

“We continue to maintain the map for water locations, but I’m not aware of that being utilized a lot this year, especially from MDC [Missouri Department of Conservation] areas,” said Jake Buxton, legislative liaison for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Last month, a brush fire burned across nearly 40,000 acres in central Missouri, burning nearly two dozen structures and homes to the ground in Wooldridge, a small town in Cooper County. The Cooper County fire chief said the fire escalated quickly due to a lack of rain and high winds.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, parts of southwest and southeast Missouri are still in an extreme drought. In the map released Thursday, Barton, Jasper, Newton, Dade, Vernon and Scott counties are in an extreme drought. Dozens of other counties are in severe and moderate drought, and a large chunk of the state is abnormally dry. 

A map showing drought in the counties in Missouri, credit by U.S. Drought Monitor

“It’s not a matter of when the grass is going to come back because it’s not,” said Nate Goodrich from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “The heat that came along with that drought down there basically just killed all that cool season grass.”

The committee is made up of members from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Agriculture, Department of Conservation, Department of Transportation, Department of Public Safety, along with the National Weather Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, the lack of rainfall has contributed to river traffic being halted. 

“You can tell by those lines, we’re way down from where we have been in past history,” said Jud Kneuvean, emergency management chief for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from the Kansas City district. 

Kneuvean said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is being forced to close down the navigation season early along the Missouri River after water levels are too low for traffic. Normally, the season ends Dec. 1, but this year it will end Nov. 28. 

“We will also make sure to warn all of our emergency management directors and our partners along the Missouri River due to the forecast of lower conditions coming along, that people heed that warning and be ready that we might have some ice dams along the Missouri River,” said Terry Cassil, deputy director for the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA).

Even with ongoing dredging, the committee now plans to include navigation into their focus.

“I think that navigation team needs to be focused on the Mississippi, which is an incredible link to the country,” Klenklen said. “Not just from an agriculture standpoint, I think that Chicago and places are probably looking for coal and energy supplies this winter, so I would think standing up an impact navigation team makes sense.”

A spokeswoman from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from the St. Louis District estimates the Mississippi River levels are headed to -5.2 feet. The record was set in January 1940 at -6.2 feet. 
The committee unanimously approved to form an impact team for navigation and to include members from MoDOT, Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, DNR, MDC, the waterways council and the Department of Economic Development. 

The executive order the governor signed in July is set to expire Dec. 1, but due to conditions, the committee also agreed to ask for the order to be extended at least until spring.