The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
For daily monitoring of the river levels, you can find the Cairo Gage listed in two internet locations. Both are useful sites, and the true river nerd will visit both to glean the best information possible. On the other hand, the true river rat will ignore both sites and paddle on downstream regardless about what the “guv’mint” is saying about the river!
NWS (National Weather Service) Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center:
NWS Advance Hydrologic Predication Site:
Dikes and Water levels according to the Cairo Gage
Below Cairo you can use the following scale to gage water flowing over dikes, although some dikes vary in height. Also some have been “notched” in recent years, and as result there will be a notch cut right into the dike that you can paddle through at much lower levels of water, in some places down below 10 on the Cairo Gage.
Dike exposure using the Cairo Gage:
10-17CG water flowing through notches only
18CG rocks still exposed on all dikes
18-22 dikes starting to go under, some flow through breaks & low spots
23 dikes completely under, but little flow
25-29CG good flow and lots of boils & turbulence
30CG strong flow, turbulence, no dikes exposed anywhere
35CG river bank full
>40CG Flood Stage
Effects on Cairo and surrounding towns in regards to Cairo Gage:
In the Great Flood of 2011 Cairo, Mounds, Future City, and all of the highways, fields, farms, and bottomlands in the area, and probably even portions of I-57 were almost submerged. A catastrophic flood was averted when the USACE General made the decision to blow the Birds Point levee and open for the first time ever the New Madrid St. John’s Floodway. When the levee was dynamited the river dropped 2.7 feet at Cairo, as the hydrologists predicted would happen. Even with the New Madrid Floodway easing pressure on the Ohio/Mississippi confluence, the river still rose to 61.72 on the Cairo Gage, the highest ever in recorded history, and within 3.3 feet of the top of the levee at Cairo.
Cairo Gage: Effects on Cairo and surrounding Communities:
32 Cairo begins pumping operations.
40 Minor flooding occurs affecting mainly agricultural bottomland and low lying areas.
50 The first gate is closed at Cairo.
56 U.S. Highway 51 near Wickliffe is flooded.
61.8 This flood will exceed the highest stage on record.
64 The river will reach the top of the protection of Cairo.
65 The river will reach the top of the protection at Mounds and Mound City.
Historic Highs and Lows according to the Cairo Gage:
(1) 61.72 ft on 05/02/2011
(2) 59.50 ft on 02/03/1937
(3) 56.50 ft on 04/03/1975
(4) 56.40 ft on 04/20/1927
(5) 56.20 ft on 03/11/1997
Low Water Records
(1) -1.00 ft on 12/24/1871
(2) 0.30 ft on 12/30/1876
(3) 1.10 ft on 01/01/1877
954.5 Ohio/Middle Miss River Confluence:
Start of the Lower Mississippi River
Paddlers, welcome to the Lower Mississippi River! The Ohio River on the average delivers twice as much water to this point than the Mississippi. Which means you are now on the biggest volume river in North America, which is pretty awesome when you consider all of the big rivers there are winding and writhing their way across this continent, including the biggies like the Yukon, the McKenzie, and the St. Lawrence.
If you combined all of the rivers of Canada you would come up with a bigger river. If you combined all of the glacier-melt torrents of Alaska the same, it would b a bigger river. But the Mississippi beats out all other rivers by the sheer reach of its basin. In the forest the biggest tree that has the most branches with the most twigs is going to receive the most sunlight. In similar fashion the biggest river will have the most tributaries. All of the branches and twigs of the giant main trunk of the Lower Mississippi reach out all over this country and catch more rain drops and melting snow flakes than any other. The catchment basin it’s called. And the Mississippi is endowed with one of the biggest. Only the Amazon has a bigger one. Maybe the Congo. If you combine all of the streams and creeks and coulees and rivulets and seeps and wetland runoffs across a big enough area, in fact across two thousand miles from the Northern Rockies to the Alleghenies, well eventually you’re going to come up with a big volume flow that exceeds all of the others. So like many things in life, it’s all a matter of who you know and how well-connected you are.
The one-and-one-half mile wide confluence is often quoted as the natural widest place on the entire Mississippi River, which makes sense, this is the biggest and most important confluence out of any of them, and the two rivers run side by side before joining, deepening, narrowing. But as result of personal observation it seems like the Arkansas River confluence (374 miles downstream) is just as wide. And some of the places below or above some of the big islands, like Choctaw Island, or even Wolf Island (which is the first big island downstream from here) are just as wide, or wider. Of course, with all things Mississippi, everything has to do with river level. In the great flood of 2011 there were places where the river was five miles wide levee to levee, that is including all of the water flowing through the woods over completely flooded islands. But maybe at low water this is the natural widest place. All facts are subject to perspective on the river, kind of like space travel.
Photographer Charles Dee Sharp documented the river in 1953, noting the big changes you feel entering the kingdom of the Lower Mississippi:
“Below St. Louis the geography changes; below Cairo it changes utterly. It’s a transcendent, timeless realm. There is an elemental awe about it. Everything human disappears in the riverscape. Emotions are affected, discomfited, made ambiguous. The horizon is empty, limitless. You are an irrelevant nothing in a watery wilderness. Through crazed boils and whirlpools [you] move upon the brown mass of water”