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.
LA CRESCENT, Minn.
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.
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.
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.