How Climate Change Is Changing the Mississippi’s Cruise Business

by Pelican Press
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How Climate Change Is Changing the Mississippi’s Cruise Business

Tom Trovato and his wife, Trish, paid more than $20,000 and waited two years to experience Viking’s inaugural cruise up the Mississippi River. Leaving in September 2022, it was supposed be a two-week excursion from New Orleans to St. Paul, Minn., a trip of some 1,800 miles.

They never got past Memphis.

Low water levels, caused by drought, narrowed the river’s main shipping channel to allow only one-way traffic, first stalling their boat, the Viking Mississippi, and then ultimately aborting the trip.

Though they got a full refund, the Trovatos, who live in Surprise, Ariz., have no plans to try again.

“If I live to be 125, it might be on my bucket list,” said Mr. Trovato, 79.

The Mississippi River is central to American identity, with all the contradictions that entails. It’s an artery that sustained Indigenous cultures for thousands of years — “Mississippi” derives from the Ojibwe for “great river” — and it marked the frontier from which Lewis and Clark set out to find a route to the Pacific. The river’s alluvial deposits and deep waters formed the basis of prosperity for generations of farmers, and brought perdition to vast numbers of enslaved people who toiled along its banks and feared little more than being “sold down the river.”

For many people, particularly baby boomers reaching their retirement years, a cruise along the Mississippi River is a dream trip. But it’s becoming harder to make it come true. Though operators are building new ships, and towns and cities are investing in infrastructure to welcome boat traffic, cruises on the Mississippi face mounting challenges from an increasing number of droughts and floods.

Decades of forest and wetland destruction, dam construction and dredging have added to natural fluctuations in the Mississippi’s flow. Now climate change has only heightened the river’s tendency for dramatic seasonal shifts in water levels, frequently rerouting ships and causing delays.

Just late last month, in St. Paul — the final port for the Trovatos’ original itinerary — rising Mississippi River levels forced the closure of shoreline roads, bridges and parks. The river rose 20.17 feet above its banks before cresting, the seventh major flood in St. Paul since 2010, according to the National Water Prediction Service, and the eighth highest crest recorded.

Farther south, Memphis had made its $40 million Beale Street Landing the centerpiece of a larger redevelopment of parks and trails snaking along six miles of Mississippi shoreline. Last year, more than half of the 128 scheduled cruise ship landings there were canceled, mostly because of low water levels that made it impossible for the boats to reach the dock.

In July 2021, an overnight passenger riverboat visited Kimmswick, Mo., for the first time in 125 years, when the 341-foot American Duchess docked at its new landing. The town was expecting the cruise industry to boost tourism in the area. But the American Duchess was also the last cruise to dock there. There hasn’t been enough water for boats to come back until recently: The Viking Mississippi was finally scheduled to land in Kimmswick on Monday, but this time, the water was too high.

“We’re just seeing climate impacts stack up,” said Colin Wellenkamp, the executive director of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, a coalition of local governments along the river. “We used to see them every 10 to 15 years, now we’re seeing them where they just don’t quit.”

Despite the pandemic, when most travel worldwide was at a costly standstill, bookings on river cruises in the United States rose 25 percent from 2019 to 2022, according to data from AAA, the automobile owners’ group that also tracks air and cruise travel. An analysis by the market research firm Grandview Research in 2022 projected continued growth of more than 20 percent a year for U.S. river cruising through 2030, largely on the strength of the Mississippi River cruises.

River cruising “took off first in the European rivers, but it’s always been really built on American travelers,” said Charlie Robertson, an owner and chief executive of American Cruise Lines, the dominant operator on the Mississippi. Both American and Viking, a major player in Europe and Asia, are already booking Mississippi cruises into 2025, and building new ships to serve this market. Though the parent company of the third Mississippi cruise operator, American Queen Voyages, declared bankruptcy earlier this year, citing difficulties recovering from the effects of the pandemic, American Cruise Lines purchased all four paddle wheelers in its fleet.

“Demand’s not going anywhere but up,” Mr. Wellenkamp said. “Everybody wants to see the historic Main Street, and everybody wants to see this ecological icon Mark Twain wrote about.”

In Kimmswick, the new landing had local leaders dreaming of a return to the town’s roots as a key stop for Mississippi steamboats. After years spent building sandbag levees to protect Kimmswick — three major floods threatened the downtown since 2015 — and building a landing to accommodate 40-foot swings in the river’s flow, drought severe enough to threaten the town’s economic prospects seemed unthinkable.

“​​How can you be a river-facing city if you don’t have any riverboats?” said Phil Stang, Kimmswick’s mayor.

The Mississippi basin extends to 32 states and two Canadian provinces, moving a staggering 600,000 cubic feet of water a second into the Gulf of Mexico. Even in its historic state, it could be powerfully unpredictable, with flows that oscillated by as much as 60 feet in the space of a season. T.S. Eliot called the river “a strong brown god — sullen, untamed and intractable.”

Today, much of the river has been remade as a maritime highway, with locks, levees and revetments designed to control its flow and stop floodwaters.

“When the river wasn’t leveed, it would flood 100 miles back into farmland,” said Lee Hendrix, who got his start as a deckhand on a towboat in 1972 and has spent the last 50 years working on the river. “Now, the levees don’t allow that.” As a result, the river’s swings are growing more intense. “It’s undeniable that it’s more volatile in terms of how rapidly it can rise and fall,” Mr. Hendrix said.

He spent last summer sharing Mississippi lore and trivia with passengers as the American Queen’s onboard “Riverlorian.” As the boat sailed past sandbars that went on for miles, he found himself grateful to be in a position with no responsibility for logistics. “There were a lot of docks we couldn’t get to,” he said.

Planning can blunt the impact of these disruptions — American Cruise Lines doesn’t schedule its tallest boats to sail the upper Mississippi, where sailing under some bridges during high water is impossible. The boats themselves are changing, too, to designs that can slip beneath low bridges, motor upstream against strong currents and get to shore in shallower waters. “Our basic design parameter is that if the tow boats can go, we can go,” said Mr. Robertson, the chief executive. “Because the Army Corps will move heaven and earth to allow the towing industry to keep moving.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers runs patrol teams and a dredging operation to maintain a navigable channel at least 300 feet wide and 9 feet deep. In recent years, the Corps has added more structures along the riverbanks called “chevrons” that allow high water to better flush out sediment that blocks the channel. Nevertheless, drought conditions have extended seasons when dredging is required.

“While we’re dredging less, our crews are out there on the river for a longer time,” said Shawn Sullivan, the strategic planning coordinator for the Corps’ St. Louis district. “I don’t know what normal is anymore.”

Carol Coletta leads Memphis River Parks Partnership, the nonprofit that manages Beale Street Landing. The group anticipates a $700,000 revenue shortfall from landings this fiscal year, and is looking for ways to modify a second landing that can welcome boats even when the river is at its lowest. “We have to anticipate that this could persist,” Ms. Coletta said, “and if it does persist, then we cannot count on boat dockings for revenue.”

For cities smaller than Memphis, the hit can be much deeper. “If you’re a town of 800 people and a boat of 250 shows up, you’re going to feel that in your economy,” said Mr. Wellenkamp, of the Cities and Towns Initiative. “We have cities that 20 percent of their economy is captured from the riverboats stopping in, and we have cities where 60 percent of the economy is captured from riverboats stopping in.”

Cindy Anderson, who owns the travel agency USA River Cruises, says she’s gotten more careful in advising customers when to visit the region. “We have people ask us, and I say, ‘Springtime is fabulous,’” she said. Vendors have shifted their offering, too. The whole Mississippi, from St. Paul to New Orleans, was a popular itinerary Ms. Anderson used to sell year round; now it’s only available for a few months in the summer.

“That’s a very long and expensive cruise to book if you have to cancel it,” she said.

Even as cruise traffic on the Mississippi has grown, Ms. Anderson says much of her business has shifted to the Columbia River, in the Pacific Northwest, where large dams and meltwater from high peaks modulate seasonal changes in flow.

“We don’t have any water issues on the Columbia River — it never closes down, it never floods,” she said.

Ms. Anderson compared the unpredictability of Mississippi River itineraries to European rivers, many of them crisscrossed by historic bridges that offer little clearance for cruises to pass when waters are high. There, operators often ferry passengers between segments of a trip on chartered buses. But, Ms. Anderson said, most guests will expect refunds for an itinerary full of transfers by what cruise operators often call “motor coach.”

“Because they didn’t really get a cruise, they got a bus trip,” she said.

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