(CNN) — Tower Rock, a huge island in the middle of the Mississippi River south of Saint Louis, is usually surrounded by water and is only accessible by boat. But the severe drought sweeping the Midwest, dropping river levels to near-historic records, allows people to access the rock formation on foot.
“The river has receded enough that you can walk to Tower Rock without getting your feet wet or muddy,” Missouri resident Jeff Biget told CNN. “I only remember seeing something like this once in my life.”
Photographs taken by Biget show several people walking across the rocky riverbed to the island tower, an easy walk and one that will continue to be as water levels are expected to continue to drop for at least the next two weeks.
Tower Rock can be reached on foot when the water level is below two feet on the Chester, Illinois River gauge, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation. That indicator fell to around zero on Thursday and the forecast shows no signs of a recovery soon.
“More than 55% of the contiguous states in the country face a drought, according to the US Drought Monitor, it is the largest area affected by the phenomenon since April. And more than 133 million people live in those areas , which makes it the largest affected population since 2016.
The severe drought covers more than 70% of the territory of Arkansas and almost 40% of Missouri – the number was 5% just a month ago. Several places have seen little rainfall at record levels in recent weeks, including Memphis, Fayetteville, Arkansas and Springfield, Missouri. The Climate Prediction Center forecast is dry, with below-average precipitation through at least October 23.
The expansion of drought in the early fall in the central US had a significant impact on the Mississippi River. In Memphis, the river was at its lowest level since 2012 this week and is the fifth lowest level ever recorded. For next week, the forecast calls for it to decline further, to the third lowest level on record.
More than 40 river gauges in the Mississippi River basin are reporting low water levels, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Bailey White, who lives in Tennessee north of Memphis, told CNN she’s never seen the water level of the Mississippi River drop this much. White says she and her family go boating on the river several times a month, but they had a hard time doing it last Saturday.
“I’ve seen the water levels drop a little bit and I’ve seen them super high as well, but I’ve never seen them this low before,” White said. “We couldn’t even put our little boat in the river. We had to try five different springs until we got it right. It’s a small boat so it doesn’t sink deep into the water, but we had to be vigilant a few times or we would have hit the sand.”
The photographs show how the river has shrunk away from its banks. The normally mighty Mississippi looks more like a small stream in some areas, with dry sand in sight where several meters of water normally flow.
The low river levels coincide with a crucial time of year for the transportation of crops from the nation’s heartland, CNN previously reported. The Army Corps of Engineers dredged parts of the river to keep traffic flowing, though it happens at a much slower rate. Hundreds of barges and boats have been queuing up, waiting for everything to clear to go down the river.
The Consolidated Grain and Transportation Company, which buys, stores and sells crops for shipment, can typically move grain on barges loaded with up to 12,500 tons, according to David Gilbert, the company’s superintendent at its Greenville, Mississippi, office.
But recently, low water levels have forced the company to keep loads much lighter, at around 8,600 tonnes.
“I haven’t seen him any lower than he is right now,” Gilbert told CNN. “We are not charging at this time.”
Gilbert said that instead of shipping their crops right now, many farmers “just dump it into their bins” and wait for better conditions, which could be weeks away.
As the supply chain crisis grows, a playful atmosphere has been installed at Tower Rock.
“Tower Rock, walking on the river just happens every once in a while,” Elainna Froemsdorf told CNN affiliate KFVS.
Froemsdorf took his grandchildren for the walk on Monday, which was a school holiday. “There was no school today, so it will be a fun day for Grandma,” Froemsdorf said.
He told KFVS that his grandchildren are the third generation of his family to hike to the rock formation. And his granddaughter, Adilyn Chowder, was happy about the new experience.
“I’ve never done anything like this before, and it was a little challenging, but fun,” Crowden told KFVS.
CNN’s Carroll Alvarado, Amanda Watts and Judson Jones contributed to this story.