It was a harrowing feat of engineering and construction. A massive undertaking that took years to study and complete.

Over 60 years ago, the extensive lock and dam system developed on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers was marveled by transportation gurus as the savior for the heartland – and rest – of America. Now, transportation proponents have taken up the same battle cry in an effort to take the aging system – one that helps carry two-thirds of U.S. grain exports – into the 21st century.

Currently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in the midst of an extensive study to outline what improvements are needed. With an initial report expected by July 2002, lock and dam upgrades may finally become reality – a reality some see as long overdue.

The Corps initial report due out next summer will be the lynchpin to the success of river transportation, says Paul Bertels, production and marketing director for the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA).

"What’s critical about July 2002 is that Congress will likely be writing the Water Resource Development Act during that time," Bertels notes. "We need to get favorable language in that act, which provides direction to the Corps, in order for the lock and dam upgrades to survive."

While few in the industry dispute the need for upgrades, determining how, what and when is a Herculean effort. Midwest Area River Coalition (MARC) 2000, a St. Louis-based advocacy group that has been educating and lobbying for lock and dam upgrades, has recommended the following changes on the system: Seven new 1,200-foot locks; five 1,200-foot guidewall extensions on the Mississippi River; additional mooring buoys and cells.

From the Corps of Engineers perspective, "We have jumped into it full force," notes Denny Lundberg, regional project manager for the Corps navigation study. "The whole intent of the study is to develop a framework for sustainability of the river’s overall environment, balancing transportation with environmental and economic concerns."

While transportation is key to the study, Lundberg says it’s more broad-based. "We’re going about this in a very collaborative format, pulling in other federal and state agencies, all the stakeholders, to help define what needs to be done."

From a "time is money" standpoint, you don’t have to look far to see how the changes could help.

Chris Brescia, MARC 2000 president, says it’s imperative that improvements are made. "Our competitive advantage over the last 50 years has been our transportation system," he notes. "But we’re letting it slip away."

Current barge tows on the river are 1,100’ long. But the lock and dam sites – totaling 29 on the Mississippi alone from St. Paul to St. Louis – are only 600’ long. As a result, tows must untether and push through in two separate tows, taking up to three times longer to move through a lock.

As foreign competition such as Brazil and China spend significant money to improve waterways, Brescia says it’s time the U.S. follows suit. "These delays cost millions of dollars each year, threatening thousands of high-paying jobs and the profitability of hundreds of family farms."

And, as exports and river use continue to grow, the traffic jam will not be exclusive to the riverways if improvements aren’t made, Brescia notes. According to MARC 2000, a standard barge load that would be diverted to the roadways carries 58 semi trucks of grain. With each standard barge tow containing 15 barges, that translates into 870 more trucks on the highway for each tow that’s diverted from the river.

Fewer trucks also means cleaner air. According to the Corps, moving goods on the Mississippi and Illinois waterways saves the nation between $100 million and $300 million each year in air clean-up costs.

The Corps initial report next summer "will provide a summary of everything we have done to date on the navigation study," Lundberg says. "This is a first; we’ve never done that before."

While Corps recommendations will not be part of the initial report, Lundberg says Congress could utilize the information to initiate action on upgrades.

Historically, the Corps has looked at river upgrade needs since 1993. But a year-long National Research Council (NRC) review of the Corps information took aim at the lack of consideration for the economic and environmental impacts of lock and dam improvements.

"Even though we spent about $23 million of the $56 million study budget on environmental issues, the council recommended we expand the study to broader environmental and economic areas," Lundberg notes.

Following the NRC report in February 2001, the Corps requested a federal task force comprised of senior officials from the departments of agriculture, transportation, interior and the Environmental Protection Agency. The study then began in August.

For more information on river upgrades and proposed changes, visit the following industry Web sites: , www.marc2000.org, www.mvd.usace.army.mil www.ncga.com/transportation/main/index.html. F

What It May Be Costing

At a recent meeting of the National Waterways Conference, the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) presented preliminary findings of an independent study it initiated. The study looked at backlogged river traffic and its economic impact.

Michael Evans, a private consultant and former macroeconomics professor at Northwestern University, conducted the survey. The findings below represent one possibility of the economic side effects if changes are not made:

  • o 4¢ reduction in farm commodity prices
  • o $21.2 billion reduction in farm income
  • o 23,000 lost farm-sector jobs
  • o $439 million in lost taxes
  • o Increased tax rates in farm states, relating to additional job losses
  • o 16% increase in rail rates for food and farm products
  • o $500 million national increase in consumer food bills
  • o Reduction in disposable income and GDP

NCGA’s full report on its independent study is scheduled for release within the next few months. F