Dire straits

The Mis­sis­sippi River lock and dam sys­tem is crit­i­cal to the econ­omy. But it’s fall­ing apart fast.


Mis­sis­sippi River lock and dam sys­tem

The Up­per Mis­sis­sippi River is con­trolled by 29 locks and dams that stretch from the Twin Cities to St. Louis as the river drops in el­e­va­tion by more than 400 feet. Most of the locks and dams were built in the 1930s and de­signed to last 50 years. The U.S. Army Corps of En­gi­neers faces a back­log in main­te­nance of more than $1 bil­lion.


Late spring snow lin­gered on bluffs next to the Mis­sis­sippi River as a tug from Lit­tle Rock, Arkansas, slowly crept north, push­ing a dozen empty barges. ❚ Sit­ting high out of the tea-col­ored wa­ter, it headed to the Twin Cities to pick up corn and grain har­vested last fall be­fore turn­ing around and trav­el­ing to New Or­leans. The grain ul­ti­mately would head to Asia or South Amer­ica. ❚ The 12 barges had to split into two sec­tions to float through Lock and Dam No. 7 near La Crosse, Wis­con­sin. One at a time, slowly, each sec­tion moved through the 600-foot-long lock and rose 41⁄ feet be­fore re­con­nect­ing.

The Mis­sis­sippi River has moved goods for cen­turies. The Up­per Mis­sis­sippi, from St. Louis to the head­wa­ters in Min­nesota’s Lake Itasca, gen­er­ates al­most $600 bil­lion in an­nual eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity. The en­tire 2,300-mile river is used to transport 60 per­cent of all grain prod­ucts in Amer­ica, the world’s No. 1 grain pro­ducer.

The sys­tem of 29 locks and dams en­sures a rel­a­tively or­derly flow up and down the river.

But the sys­tem is in dire straits. The river’s in­fra­struc­ture is de­te­ri­o­rat­ing faster than it’s re­placed. When most of the locks and dams were built in the 1930s, en­gi­neers es­ti­mated their life­span at 50 years. The lock and dam sys­tem so crit­i­cal to com­merce is way past its ex­pi­ra­tion date.

The amount of goods trav­el­ing on the Mis­sis­sippi River is likely to in­crease by more than 20 per­cent by 2050.

The U.S. Army Corps of En­gi­neers main­tains and re­pairs the locks and dams, but the agency es­ti­mates its back­logged main­te­nance costs at more than $1 bil­lion. Should any lock or dam fail long-term, it could create havoc for U.S. com­merce.

“They’re fab­u­lous struc­tures, given what they’ve done. But it’s time,” said Ernie Perry, prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor of a Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son study ex­am­in­ing how agri­cul­ture prod­ucts would move to mar­kets if the locks and dams closed.

Congress au­tho­rized con­struc­tion of seven 1,200-foot locks at the river’s most con­gested spots in Mis­souri and Illi­nois in 2007 at a price tag of more than $2 bil­lion. One prob­lem: It didn’t pro­vide the money. More than a decade later, they still haven’t been built.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s pro­posal for in­fra­struc­ture fund­ing hinted at private-public part­ner­ships, mean­ing less fed­eral over­sight and the pos­si­bil­ity of fees. The locks have al­ways been free, and ship­ping com­pa­nies say they could go bank­rupt if re­quired to pay fees.

Crum­bling in­fra­struc­ture

Wa­ter is the cheap­est and eas­i­est way to move big, heavy ob­jects. Con­sid- er the tug head­ing up to the Twin Cities with a dozen barges. “If this 12-barge tow had three more barges, (a com­mon load on the Up­per Mis­sis­sippi River), you would need 1,000 trucks on High­way 55 and I-90, or two 100-car trains, to carry the same load,” said Pa­trick Moes, spokesman for the Army Corps of En­gi­neers St. Paul District.

Perry is ad­min­is­tra­tor of the Mid-Amer­ica Freight Coali­tion at the Na­tional Cen­ter for Freight In­fra­struc­ture Re­search and Ed­u­ca­tion.

His re­port out­lin­ing how goods would get to their des­ti­na­tions with­out the Mis­sis­sippi River is stark. Traf­fic jams. Cracked pave­ment. Crum­bling in­fra­struc­ture.

For the study, Perry fo­cused only on trans­port­ing south­bound agri­cul­ture prod­ucts by truck. As­sum­ing a one-sea­son shut­down across the Up­per Mis­sis­sippi re­gion, 9.1 mil­lion to 12.4 mil­lion tons of agri­cul­tural goods would need to find an­other way to move to mar­kets. That’s the equiv­a­lent of 367,000 to 489,000 truck­loads – with an ad­di­tional cost of $283 mil­lion.

Perry found that many of the roads semi­trail­ers would have to travel are ru­ral and not de­signed for heavy loads. Pave­ment dam­age from the in­creased truck traf­fic would drive costs up an ad­di­tional $28.8 mil­lion.

That’s only a por­tion of the goods — just agri­cul­tural prod­ucts — that travel along the river.

Pol­lu­tion would in­crease, too, be­cause barges ac­count for a much smaller car­bon foot­print than rail and trucks. Perry’s study es­ti­mated an ad­di­tional 212,000 tons of car­bon diox­ide would be created if trucks car­ried all the agri­cul­tural prod­ucts nor­mally mov­ing on the Mis­sis­sippi.

Lack of un­der­stand­ing

In 2013, the Amer­i­can So­ci­ety of Civil En­gi­neers gave Amer­ica’s in­land wa­ter­way sys­tem a grade of D-mi­nus for poor con­di­tion and fre­quent de­lays. The Mis­sis­sippi and Ohio river sys­tems ac­counted for a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of de­lays.

“Every day, peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence pot­holes, but they don’t see that on the river, so it’s out of sight, out of mind,” said Kirsten Mick­elsen, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Up­per Mis­sis­sippi Basin Val­ley As­so­ci­a­tion, which rep­re­sents gov­er­nors and agen­cies for five states, in­clud­ing Wis­con­sin, that bor­der the river.

“The risk is in­cred­i­bly high. The (Army) Corps will do its best job to avoid that at all costs. But a fail­ure could oc­cur at any time,” Mick­elsen said. “It’s a mat­ter of: Do we ad­dress this as an emer- gency sit­u­a­tion, or do we ad­dress it ahead of time?”

De­lays from main­te­nance, as well as break­ing apart tows to move through 600-foot locks, are a headache for farm­ers and ship­pers, said Sa­muel His­cocks, freight co­or­di­na­tor for the Iowa De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion.

“The record har­vests of corn and soy­beans will con­tinue to over­whelm that sys­tem and make the de­lays worse. That will in­crease com­mod­ity prices and de­crease the na­tion’s edge over other com­mod­ity pro­duc­ers,” His­cocks said.

Reg­u­lar re­pairs

Lock and Dam No. 7 just north of La Crosse was built in 1937, and the most re­cent ma­jor re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion work was done in 2003. The concrete guide wall is on top of 80-year-old wood pil­ings and riprap. When the struc­ture be­gan to shift re­cently, the Army Corps of En­gi­neers brought in scuba divers to pump in low-den­sity grout to sta­bi­lize the

600-foot-long struc­ture. Divers will be­gin the same work on Lock 2’s guide wall this sum­mer, fol­lowed by Locks 5, 8 and

10. Lock 2, the youngest in the St. Paul district, opened in 1948.

A ma­jor re­hab was done on Locks and Dams 2 through 10 in the 1990s, when elec­tri­cal wiring and ma­chin­ery was re­placed. The steel miter gates that clang shut be­hind tows pass­ing through locks are orig­i­nal.

The locks and dams along Wis­con­sin and Min­nesota shut down for the win­ter sea­son, which al­lows re­pair crews to drain wa­ter and per­form main­te­nance, in­clud­ing blast­ing and paint­ing, re­pair­ing concrete and re­plac­ing pipes. But win­ter weather is also a hin­drance be­cause freez­ing and thaw­ing cy­cles can de­grade concrete and other build­ing ma­te­ri­als more quickly.

Dan Burger, a deck­hand and Army Corps of En­gi­neers safety of­fi­cer, is part of a Foun­tain City, Wis­con­sin-based team that han­dles re­pairs for 13 locks. That ranges from rou­tine main­te­nance to re­spond­ing to mishaps.

Most crew mem­bers keep a bag packed for emer­gen­cies be­cause when a lock shuts down, traf­fic quickly backs up. Back­ups cost ship­ping com­pa­nies mil­lions of dol­lars each year.

“If it’s a prob­lem with a gate (which means shut­ting down the lock), it’s all hands on deck,” Burger said.


Site safety of­fi­cer Dan Burger stands on the lock gates as they swing open for a north­bound tow­boat on the Mis­sis­sippi River. Main­te­nance is be­hind sched­ule on river in­fra­struc­ture.


Jim Rand, chief of locks and dams, checks gear­ing in­stalled in the mid-1930s that con­trols an 86-foot-wide gate at Lock and Dam No. 7 on a stretch of the Mis­sis­sippi River be­tween Wis­con­sin and Min­nesota.

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