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Shipping Out, Part 4: Mississippi River Transportation System Gets D-Minus Grade

Many Locks on the Mississippi River were built to last 50 years. Those locks are now 70 years old. What happens to river transport if the U.S. doesn't invest in its infrastructure?

By Frank Lessiter, Editorial Director

When I ask Captain Rider how long this trip from Minneapolis to St. Louis, will take, I don’t get a quick answer. He explains that it may take anywhere from 6 to 12 days, depending on the time of year, the amount of river traffic, delays at any of 25 locks, the river’s current and wind speed.

Shipping Out

With no locks slowing river traffic between St. Louis and New Orleans, it’s another 6 days to where the grain will be stored in huge elevators. It will later be transferred to ocean-going ships that hold as much as 5 million bushels of grain for Asian and European customers.

Aging locks, inadequate lock size, increasing channel dredging needs, critical repair needs, chronic budget shortfalls and concerns in coordinating overseas shipments with restricted river availability are major worries on most of our nation’s rivers that are used for transportation. Built to last 50 years, many of the Upper Mississippi River locks are already more than 70 years old. And on the Ohio River, several locks are in danger of totally failing, which would bring river traffic to a complete halt.

As a result, the American Society of Civil Engineers has given a D-minus grade to the deteriorating physical condition of the Mississippi River navigable waterways. To grade in the A- or B+ range, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates it will need to spend an amazing $33.6 billion above the President’s 2005 budget to bring the Upper Mississippi River system up to modern needs.

But there’s a long way to go and getting the needed federal funding is a huge concern. One of the biggest supporters of lock modernization is Southern Illinois Congressman John Shimkus. He’s favored spending federal dollars to fix the Mississippi River lock situation and increase the length of a number of locks since becoming a House of Representatives member in 1997.

The Congressman voted for the Water Resources Development Act of 2007, which was eventually passed by Congress over the veto of President George Bush. While the bill called for spending $1.95 billion to build seven new locks, construction has yet to start due to funding concerns.

“This legislation included the expansion of seven locks on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers from 600 feet in length to 1,200 feet,” Shimkus said. “This expansion is vital to the continued export of our agricultural and manufactured goods.”

He says that if we can’t utilize our river navigation system, we will add traffic to our already crowded highways. The locks must be expanded in order to keep river traffic running and to maintain economic growth.

Before we go any further, let’s take a minute to look at some background and history on development of the Upper Mississippi River transportation system.

In 1866, states along the Upper Mississippi River convinced Congress to establish a 4-foot deep channel along the 670-miles between St. Paul and St. Louis. This was upgraded to a 4-½ foot deep channel in 1878 and to a 6-foot deep Upper Mississippi River channel by 1907.

But even with these navigation improvements, steam boat traffic that required only a shallow operating depth sharply declined as the railroads offered greater reliability.

With the 1930 Rivers and Harbors Act, Congress funded a 9-foot deep channel project stretching from St. Louis to Minneapolis. Construction got underway in 1931 and was completed in 1963. Rather than narrowing the river and depending solely on water flow, 23 locks and dams were constructed to store water in upstream reservoirs or pools in order to guarantee the depth of the 9-foot deep channel.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers narrowed the river’s main stream with wing dams and closing dams that eliminate side channels. Still in use today, these long narrow wing dams that were built with rock and brush jutted out into the river from the shoreline or from islands. Placed along one or both sides of the river, these wing dams dramatically reduce the channel width during low water flows.

Fully-loaded barges on the Upper Mississippi require a minimum of 9 feet of water so the Corps of Engineers maintains the channel at this depth. This provides a valuable shipping channel that’s used for getting products such as grain downstream for transportation in ocean-going vessels to world markets and for moving bulky products such as coal and fertilizer north for use in the Midwest.

Once the Missouri River joins the Mississippi River at St. Louis, the combined river is wide and deep enough that locks and dams aren’t needed to maintain a 9-foot deep channel to New Orleans.

In a later conversation, Captain Rider tells me that for the next 30 days, none of the crew members will get 8 hours sleep at any one time. The crew works 6-hour shifts and then eats, sleeps and relaxes while having the next 6 hours off.

With two work shifts per day, each crew member works 12 hours in every 24-hour period. Cook Linda Winters prepares three solid meals per day and feeds the crew as they come off and go on their respective shifts. And we’ll soon learn that what she turns out from her small but efficient tow boat kitchen is nothing short of amazing.

In the next segment of "Shipping Out," we'll show you why filling the tow boat with diesel fuel may cost over $200,000. Shipping Out segments will appear once every two-to-three weeks. Make sure to check back often!



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