Mississippi River: Battle For Upgrades
The debate over how to overhaul the aging Mississippi lock and dam system has been mired down for decades, but Iowa Governor Terry Branstad hopes a meeting held Feb. 5, in Davenport, Iowa, will get momentum rolling for upgrades.
Branstad pulled together stakeholders ranging from farm commodity group representatives to community development leaders to environmentalists to start a new conversation on the importance of this major artery and the need for rehabilitation to keep a competitive advantage.
“We’re here to discuss the importance of the Mississippi River not just to Iowa, but the entire upper Midwest. The river is a critical part of our nation’s transportation infrastructure. It helps connect Iowa with the world economy.
“It gives Iowa agriculture producers and businesses a competitive advantage,” he said during the press conference. He also mentioned the importance of helping U.S. agriculture feed a growing world population.
Branstad said the current low water situation below St. Louis has offered an opportunity to educate the general public about the importance of the Mississippi and how this valuable natural resource affects the Midwest and the national economy.
Gary Meden, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Rock Island District, Deputy Commander for Programs and Project Management, told the audience the 37 aging lock and dam systems along the upper Mississippi (which includes the Illinois River system) were built in the 1930s with a 50-year design life span. “Most of the gates’ mechanical and electrical systems are still original,” said Meden. “It’s truly amazing what our lock and dam operators and maintenance crews can do with this old infrastructure with limited resources.”
Meden said the only funding that has been received over the past two years has been for operations and maintenance. “About 65% of this funding goes to pay the lock and dam operators and maintenance crews. The remainder goes to keep the system operating and to fix things when they break,” he added. Meden estimated the operations and maintenance amounts received each year are about one-third of what is needed.
The majority of the locks are still 600-foot chambers, which are single-point-of-failure systems. If a lock goes down, there’s no way to circumvent the closure. “Every year we have more components that are nearing the breaking point. The Rock Island District has almost $1 billion in prioritized maintenance that we do not have the funding for,” he said.
Michael Toohey, Waterways Council, Inc., told DTN he is more optimistic than in the past about future efforts to fund major rehabilitation and capital improvements on the river. “Our vision is to build 25 authorized projects over the next 20 years and provide revenue to the Corps of Engineers to accomplish that,” Toohey told the crowd. He said a 6- to 9-cent-per-gallon increase in the current 20-cent-per-gallon diesel fuel tax that funds the Inland Waterway Trust Fund is part of the plan.
The pressure for repairs is building as the upgraded Panama Canal locks come closer to an April 2015 opening. Meden said when that happens, grain shipment costs to China via the canal and the Mississippi River are estimated to drop 31 to 35 cents per bushel. This is expected to increase river traffic over time. While 1,200-foot lock chambers may not currently be needed for capacity, he noted that the U.S. cannot afford to wait to begin upgrades.
Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, said a study commissioned by his group shows there will be a cascading effect from the Panama Canal expansion and greater loading capacity of ships. “It will expand the draw area of the Mississippi from 70 miles to 161 miles — a 91-mile increase in draw area.”
“There will be a significant area of this state and other states throughout the Midwest that all of a sudden view barge transportation as a viable option,” he said. “It’s going to be a very contemporary form of transportation going forward.”
Steenhoek said the study, conducted by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University, shows that how money is allocated is as important as how much money is allocated for such projects. Although the group would like to build new locks, one lock construction project is equal to approximately nine major rehabilitation projects.
“A predictably good inland waterway system is better than a hypothetically great one,” he said. “We’ve wrestled with this because the soybean industry would be one of the greatest beneficiaries of going to the 1,200-foot lock chambers.
“The concern we have right now is we are failing to construct these new locks, and at the same time we’re failing to maintain the system. So we are failing on both fronts. Each day we fail to make progress on our inland waterway system is another day in which the probability of a catastrophic failure or an unexpected closure goes up,” he said.
Steenhoek told DTN that rather than be stuck in the mud, he felt it prudent to ask the crowd whether it is better to use scarce resources to optimize current resources rather than ask for expanded locks that might not ever happen.
The full committee of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works meets Thursday. Senator Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, will hold a hearing to examine the Army Corps of Engineers’ implementation of critical water resources policies.
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