Iowa Public Television


New Locks & Dam And Environmental Improvements Under Consideration

posted on May 21, 2004

A bipartisan group of lawmakers wants the Army Corps of Engineers to proceed with a controversial $2 billion expansion of locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. The Corps decided last month to start work on doubling the length of seven river gateways, but it still needs permission from Congress. Lawmakers who support the expansion want to make the project more attractive to opponents by spending the same amount of money on restoring wildlife habitat. Opponents are skeptical that money will ever materialize.

The debate is nothing new. For years, river interests ranging from environmentalists to agribusiness to the barge industry have deliberated the river system's use. Nancy Crowfoot explains.


New Locks & Dam And Environmental Improvements Under Consideration

In 1957, this Mississippi River lock and dam (number 19 in southeast Iowa) was expanded from 600 feet long ... to 1200 feet.There are only three locks this length on the river and barge operators would like to see more... as it would cut their travel time nearly in half for their long, 15-barge units. At the shorter, 600 foot locks, like this one in northeast Iowa, the barges must be divided in half and go through the locks separately.

Built during the steamboat era, this 70-year old system of 37 locks and dams above St. Louis, on the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway is one many say needs updating.

But proposals to extend 600' foot locks to 1200 feet ... or build new ones ... have not come without controversy. Much of the decade-long controversy is whether the river traffic, which includes 60% of the nation's corn crop and 45% of the soybean crop, will increase enough over the next 50 years to warrant a "high end" construction project. The project would cost of $2.2 (B) billion dollars over a 50 year time period, to create 12, 1200- foot locks and other traffic-related improvements.

Scott Whitney, Army Corps of Engineers, Rock Island, IL: "We have to identify that there is a federal interest to do something here. And secondly, if youre going to do something to what extent? Well the benefit that we're looking for here is shipper savings. The amount of time that is going to be alleviated, that they would be typically waiting and congested, waiting to lock through."

Larry Daily, Alter Barge Line, Bettendorf, Iowa "To move a barge down the Mississippi, say from the Quad Cities to St. Louis, costs just right at twice as much as it does to move the same barge, the same distance on the Ohio River. So that's the difference that the 1200 foot locks and longer pools and a better maintained channel provide for you."

To barge operators like Larry Daily, the answer is simple economics. And he adds that half the $2.2 (B) billion dollar price tag to get the streamlined lock system he desires, would be paid for from the Inland Waterway Trust Fund. It is a fund his company and others have contributed to for years through a 20-cent per gallon fuel tax.

He adds, if his barges move more efficiently he will be able to pass his savings on to farmers selling their grain for export.

Larry Daily, Alter Barge Line, Bettendorf, Iowa: "We think it's going to be somewhere between, depending on the time of year, between five and fifteen cents a bushel, a permanent improvement in the price of corn to the farmer."

No matter the savings to navigation and farm interests, they aren't the only players with a stake in how the Mississippi River is managed. For example, 22 communities rely on the river for their drinking water and many need flood control provided by the dams. Communities also view the river as a draw for tourism and recreation.

And environmental groups want to see habitat restoration for what one spokesman calls damage by years of "damming and dredging" the river for the benefit of navigation.

Dan McGuiness, Audubon Society, St. Paul, MN: "We've kind of seen the river habitat degrade over the last 150 years. And so I think in some respects we've given up a lot for the benefit of having navigation on the river. And the flood control levy has certainly protected communities and farmland from floods. But on the other hand, they've reduced the amount of habitat in the flood plain."

Dan McGuiness of the National Audubon Society in St. Paul, Minnesota, favors a 50-year, $8.4 (B) billion dollar proposal to improve the river's ecosystem -- the most costly of five environmental scenarios proposed last fall by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Dan McGuiness, Audubon Society, St. Paul, MN: "People say that's a lot of money compared to the two billion that the navigation industry is asking for locks and dams. But what I think people don't realize in that equation is that the Corps of Engineers is already spending about $170 million dollars a year, which over 50 years is almost equal to what were asking for, for ecosystem restoration."

The "wants" for both the environment and for navigation are expensive. And after 10 years of meetings together, both sides realize they won't get everything they want ... so there is a need to compromise.

Larry Daily, Alter Barge Company, Bettendorf, Iowa: "I do believe we have to do some environmental restoration and environmental mitigation."

Dan McGuiness, Audubon Society: "At least we're communicating more now than we ever have before and I think we're trying to find a solution."

It is the willingness to compromise, the Army Corps of Engineers says, that will give both sides a better chance of success with the Congress ... the body that will decide if and how much should be allocated to the Mississippi.

Scott Whitney, Army Corps of Engineers, Rock Island, IL: They've made it very clear two years ago that they didn't want to see this continued strife over one side or the other. They're looking for a balanced solution."

The Army Corps will hold one more set of public hearings in June, and then make final recommendations to Congress in November.The recommendations will include dollar figures and specific projects for both navigation improvements ... and ecosystem restoration.

For Market To Market, I'm Nancy Crowfoot.


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