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Mississippi River locks, dam system 'in desperate need of modernization'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 25, 2012 - WASHINGTON – In the wake of last week’s costly backup in river barge traffic above St. Louis caused by emergency repairs at the Chain of Rocks lock, lawmakers are pushing to modernize the aging system of locks and dams on the upper Mississippi River.

Declaring that the lock and dam system is “in desperate need of modernization,” a bipartisan group of U.S. senators from Missouri, Illinois and Iowa urged a Senate panel this week to “find a way to expedite the construction and operation of these critical projects” on the river from St. Louis north to Minnesota.

“Too much of the river infrastructure along the Mississippi is outdated and not equipped to handle the traffic required to safely and cheaply transport goods,” said U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., in a statement. “Access to reliable and affordable transportation is absolutely critical if our businesses are going to succeed and grow.”

Nearly half of the nation’s farm exports pass through the Chain of Rocks structure – the southernmost of 27 locks and dams on the Mississippi – where nearly 500 barges were backed up while the lock was shut down Thursday. A bumper-like metal “protection cell,” which had split open in part due to low water exposure, had to be repaired. And the timing of that shutdown was unfortunate for grain companies.

“This shutdown comes during one of the most important periods of the year as Midwestern agriculture, one of the primary users of the waterways system, is the midst of harvest,” the senators wrote. “Continued shutdowns will impact the not just current shipments on the river, but the overall reliability and timeliness of using the inland waterways system.”

Every day that the Chain of Rocks lock near Granite City is closed, firms estimate that they lose between $2.5 million and $3 million because of delays in shipments of commodities such as grain and coal. The Mississippi is the main shipping waterway for grain moving from farms in the Midwest to ports and export centers at the Gulf of Mexico.

“Unfortunately, a troubling lack of upkeep within this system has crippled our ability to move goods in a safe and efficient manner,” the senators wrote in their letter to leaders of the Environmental and Public Works Committee.

The letter was signed by McCaskill along with Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Mark Kirk, R-Ill., Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. They urged the Senate panel’s chair, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and ranking Republican, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., to consider adding Mississippi River locks and dam provisions to legislation authorizing new water projects.

The senators wrote that many of the locks and dams on the upper Mississippi are seven decades old “and updates are needed to fit the requirements of modern barge technology.” For example, many of the oldest locks are only 600 feet long, leading to delays because 1,200-foot barge tows must be split in half to negotiate the locks.

But any major improvements of the Mississippi’s locks and dam system have traditionally led to major battles, with environment groups objecting to river pollution from increased barge traffic and competing railroads contending that the federal government should not subsidize inland waterway transportation.

Perhaps the most controversial such project was Locks and Dam 26 at Alton, which was fiercely debated for a decade in Congress before the old lock finally was demolished in 1990 and replaced by a new one, called the Melvin Price Locks and Dam.

A couple of years ago, the Inland Waterways User Board – coordinating with the Army Corp of Engineers in assessing how best to use the Inland Waterways Trust Fund – submitted a report to the Corps that listed options for prioritizing projects that, if funded, could be finished in a cost-effective manner.

“While the proposal presents many good specific ideas and approaches,” the senators wrote, “the main point is to establish long term strategies to ensure projects that are started, are completed in a timely and efficient manner.”

The ongoing drought – the worst since the mid-1950s in many areas – has exacerbated the problems of river traffic this year, experts say, by exposing shoals and slowing barge traffic in low-water parts of the river. The low water also may have been a factor in the damage to the Chain of Rocks lock’s buffer system.

As the main artery of the nation’s inland waterway system, the Mississippi transports about $12 billion worth of products each year, including over 1 billion bushels of grain that eventually are exported across the globe.

“This efficient river transportation is of utmost importance to the nation,” the senators wrote. “Shipping via barge keeps exports competitive and reduces transportation costs. That is good for producers and consumers.”