In May 2004, after 12 years and $70 million spent in study, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers unveiled its preferred plan and Draft Feasibility Report to improve “the economic uses and ecological integrity of the Upper Mississippi River System.”

This summer, Congress is poised to follow much of the Corps' recommended plan and pass legislation that would help U.S. farmers maintain or expand export market share while creating a healthier ecosystem along the country's “third coast.”

Currently, a series of 29 locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi River and nine others on the Illinois Waterway allow bulk commodities to flow from the nation's heartland to Gulf ports. However, many of these structures were built during the 1930s and '40s and would require updating to more efficiently accommodate modern barge traffic demands. (See March 2004, “Bye-Bye Barge Traffic,” pages 10-12.)

“The American farmer's competitive advantage has always hinged on efficient transportation,” points out Rick Tolman, CEO of the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA). “If U.S. farmers are to compete successfully with foreign competitors, they must be able to deliver their commodities to overseas markets via barge transportation. Unless this system is upgraded, barge delays will continue and the cost of American farm commodities will increase.”

According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Waterway systems transported 40% of the nation's soybean exports and half the nation's corn exports in 2002. USDA forecasts that corn exports will increase 44% over the next decade. For 2004, it forecasts agricultural exports to reach a record $61.5 billion, a $5.3 billion increase over 2003.

Farm and industry groups are mostly praising recent administrative and legislative efforts to improve the region's river infrastructure.

Under the Corps' preferred plan for the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway, Congress would appropriate $2.4 billion for infrastructure improvements to include seven new locks and five lock extensions. Half the funding would come from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, a fuel tax that is currently in place on the system's waterway users.

More specifically, the Corps recommends new lock chambers be built for locks 20-25 on the Upper Mississippi River, and at LaGrange and Peoria on the Illinois Waterway. It also recommends building new mooring facilities and employing switchboats at a variety of sites.

In June, the U.S. Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee adopted many of the Corps' recommendations by passing a Water Resources Development Act that included provisions to build new locks and improve the waterway's ecosystem.

As currently written in the Senate bill, new ecosystem restoration measures would be phased in over 15 years at a cost of $1.46 billion, with more restoration measures to follow after a thorough review and analysis. The Senate bill also includes $1.46 billion for lock improvements, with half that amount coming from the national Inland Waterway Trust Fund fuel tax.

According to the Corps, the study area for its plan “encompasses a major portion of the largest river ecosystem in North America and third largest in the world. It also includes more than 2.5 million acres of aquatic, wetland, forest, grassland and agricultural habitats.”

Although the U.S. House passed a Water Resources bill last year, it did not include many of the provisions recommended by the Corps this spring. Any differences between the bill that passed the House last year and the Water Resources bill that might ultimately pass through the full Senate this summer would need to be resolved in conference committee before going on to the President for his signature.

Betsy Croker, NCGA's public policy director, says she “feels very good” about the chances of the Water Resources bill becoming law this year, although the administration has yet to take a position on the locks project or the Water Resources bill.

“If the bill passes through the full Senate, and the House and Senate are able to resolve their differences,” says Croker, “I think the President will sign it.”

One hurdle yet to be resolved is keeping the funding for ecosystem restoration separate from navigation improvements, says Croker. While these two issues may be related, she says it would be unfair to tie them together directly so that lack of funding for one would negatively impact the other's future.

Even as efforts to improve the region's ecosystem and commerce near reality, those efforts may still stall this year if legislators fail to hear from those favoring improvements, says Paul Rohde, spokesperson for the Midwest Area River Coalition (MARC) 2000.

“Now is the time to contact your House and Senate members,” says Rohde. “Let them know that we need those improvements.”

During the Corps' June public hearings, 82% of the people who spoke were in favor of the locks, says Rohde, adding, “Although the public has already had the chance to comment through multiple hearings, we still need to carry that momentum on to Capitol Hill.”

Croker agrees. “Things are really moving well and coming together on the locks right now,” she says. “But farmers still need to call their legislators, both in the House and Senate, and keep up the pressure on Congress.”

Less Movement On The Missouri

Corn and soybean shipments on the Missouri River will be spottier in the future, predicts Betsy Croker, public policy director for the National Corn Growers Association.

“There is greater uncertainty for navigation,” says Croker, which is due to a newly revised U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Master Manual to manage the water flow for six dams on the upper reservoir. “It will be a spot market, with fewer operators.”

The manual revisions will keep more water in upper basin states to help mitigate drought conditions.

Although concerned about the outlook for consistent commerce on the Missouri, Croker says she is pleased the Corps decided not to close the Missouri for navigation entirely, which was another possibility the Corps had considered.