By Meg Jones, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published 9:59 a.m. CT June 1, 2018 | Updated 9:06 a.m. CT June 3, 2018
LA CRESCENT, Minn. — Late spring snow lingered on bluffs next to the Mississippi River as a tug from Little Rock, Arkansas, slowly crept northward, pushing a dozen empty barges.
Sitting high out of the iced tea-colored water, it was heading to the Twin Cities to pick up corn and grain harvested last fall, before turning around and traveling to New Orleans. The grain would ultimately head to Asia or South America.
The 12 barges had to split into two sections to float through Lock and Dam No. 7 near La Crosse. One at a time, slowly, each section moved through the 600-foot-long lock and rose 4½ feet before reconnecting.
The Mississippi River has moved goods from one place to another for centuries. Sometimes called America’s Central Coast, the Upper Mississippi, from St. Louis to the headwaters in Minnesota’s Lake Itasca, generates almost $600 billion in annual economic activity. The entire 2,300-mile river is used to transport 60% of all grain products in America, the world’s No. 1 grain producer.
The system of 29 locks and dams ensures a relatively orderly flow up and down the river.
But the system is in dire straits.
The river’s infrastructure is deteriorating faster than it’s being replaced. When most of the locks and dams were built in the 1930s, engineers estimated their lifespan at 50 years.
Do the math. The lock and dam system so critical to American commerce is way past its expiration date.
Further, the amount of goods traveling on the Mississippi River is expected to increase by more than 20% by 2050.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has managed to maintain and repair the locks and dams, but the agency estimates its backlogged maintenance costs at more than $1 billion. Should any lock or dam fail long-term, it could create havoc for U.S. commerce.
Further, a new system would have longer locks — 1,200 feet, the size of a 15-barge tow — to prevent the kind of inefficiency caused by breaking barge tows in half to get them through.
“They’re fabulous structures given what they’ve done. But it’s time,” said Ernie Perry, principal investigator of a recent University of Wisconsin-Madison study examining how agriculture products would move to markets if the locks and dams closed.
The chronic underfunding for Upper Mississippi locks and dams has been going on for decades. Congress authorized construction of seven new 1,200-foot locks at the river’s most congested spots in Missouri and central Illinois in 2007 at a price tag of more than $2 billion. One problem: It didn’t provide the money. More than a decade later, they still haven’t been built.
President Donald Trump’s proposal for infrastructure funding released a few months ago was vague but hinted at private-public partnerships, meaning less federal oversight and the possibility of fees. The locks have always been free and shipping companies say they could go bankrupt if required to pay fees.
Water is the cheapest and easiest way to move big, heavy objects. Consider the tug heading up to the Twin Cities with a dozen barges.
“If this 12-barge tow had three more barges, (a common load on the Upper Mississippi River), you would need 1,000 trucks on Highway 55 and I-90, or two 100-car trains, to carry the same load,” said Patrick Moes, spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers St. Paul District.
His report outlining how goods would get to their destinations without the Mississippi River is stark. Traffic jams. Cracked pavement. Crumbling infrastructure.
For the study, Perry focused only on transporting southbound agriculture products by truck. Assuming a one-season shutdown across the Upper Mississippi region, between 9.1 million and 12.4 million tons of agricultural goods would need to find another way to move to markets. That’s the equivalent of 367,000 to 489,000 truckloads — with an additional cost of $283 million.
Perry found that many of the roads semitrailers would have to travel are rural and not designed for heavy loads. With pavement damage from the increased truck traffic, costs would go up an additional $28.8 million.
And that’s only a portion of the goods — just agricultural products — that travels along the river.
Pollution would increase, too, because barges account for a much smaller carbon footprint than rail and trucks. Perry’s study estimated an additional 212,000 tons of carbon dioxide would be created if trucks carried all the agricultural products normally moving on the Mississippi.
By the time the Mississippi River reaches St. Louis, the waterway widens and tows pushing more barges travel in both directions. Perry saw a photo a few years ago showing a tow pushing 42 barges hooked together. That one load represented 18,000 acres of soybeans harvested in Missouri.
“You look at the value of one barge — My God, it’s tremendous. We’re not talking small potatoes here,” Perry said.
Lack of understanding
Between the first and last lock, the Mississippi drops about 400 feet over the course of 670 miles.
Fixing locks and dams when they fail is not a viable long-term solution, Perry said.
In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s inland waterway system a grade of D minus for poor condition and frequent delays. The Mississippi and Ohio river systems accounted for a disproportionate number of delays.
Part of the problem is that Congress, and most Americans, don’t understand what a critical role the Mississippi plays.
“Every day people experience potholes but they don’t see that on the river, so it’s out of sight, out of mind,” said Kirsten Mickelsen, executive director of the Upper Mississippi Basin Valley Association, which represents governors and agencies for five states, including Wisconsin, that border the river.
“The risk is incredibly high. The (Army) Corps will do its best job to avoid that at all costs. But a failure could occur at any time,” Mickelsen said. “It’s a matter of: Do we address this as an emergency situation or do we address it ahead of time?”
Delays from scheduled and unscheduled maintenance, as well as breaking apart tows to move through 600-foot locks, are a headache for farmers and shippers, said Samuel Hiscocks, freight coordinator for the Iowa Department of Transportation.
“The record harvests of corn and soybeans will continue to overwhelm that system and make the delays worse. That will increase commodity prices and decrease the nation’s edge over other commodity producers,” Hiscocks said.
Lock and Dam No. 7 just north of La Crosse was built in 1937 and the last major rehabilitation work was done in 2003. The concrete guide wall is on top of 80-year-old wood pilings and riprap. When the structure began to shift recently, the Army Corps of Engineers brought in scuba divers to pump in low-density grout to stabilize the 600-foot-long structure.
Divers will begin the same work on Lock 2’s guide wall this summer, followed by locks 5, 8 and 10. Lock 2, the youngest in the St. Paul district, opened in 1948.
“Some have guide wall issues. Lock 2 probably has the worst of the miter gates. Lock 4 has more concrete issues than others tend to have. Overall they’re all sort of in the same place, it’s just that they have their own idiosyncrasies,” said Kevin Baumgard, chief of the Army Corps of Engineers’ operation division in the
St. Paul District, the northernmost of the three Upper Mississippi River districts.
A major rehab was done in locks and dams 2 through 10 in the 1990s, when electrical wiring and machinery was replaced. But the steel miter gates that clang shut behind tows passing through locks are original.
Unlike the locks and dams farther south, which remain open year-round, those along Wisconsin and Minnesota shut down for the winter season, which allows repair crews to drain water and perform maintenance, including blasting and painting, repairing concrete and replacing pipes. But winter weather is also a hindrance because freezing and thawing cycles can degrade concrete and other building materials more quickly.
Dan Burger, a deckhand and Army Corps of Engineers safety officer, is part of a Fountain City-based team that handles repairs for 13 locks. That ranges from routine maintenance to responding to mishaps.
The crew includes welders, boat operators, electricians, crane operators, marine mechanics and people who specialize in concrete work and lock gates. Most crew members keep a bag packed for emergencies because when a lock shuts down, traffic quickly backs up with tows waiting on both sides to pass through. Backups cost shipping companies millions of dollars each year.
“Sometimes a tow boat breaks off a piece of wall and we repair that. Sometimes it’s just time — wear and tear,” said Burger. “If it’s a problem with a gate (which means shutting down the lock) it’s all hands on deck.”
Detailed inspections are scheduled on a five-year cycle at each of the locks and dams to assess problem areas and rate them from A to F, with D meaning the probability of failing in the near future, said Baumgard.
The inspections help the Army Corps determine where to fix things that have the biggest risk or impact on the river. The annual operating budget for the St. Paul district, which handles locks 2 through 10, is around $19 million plus roughly $3 million for routine maintenance, said Baumgard. The district has gotten upward of $20 million for bigger maintenance projects.
Fewer tax dollars
When the Mississippi River lock and dam system was built during the Depression, spending on Army Corps-related civil works facilities was $70 per capita. Now it’s $18 per American, noted Baumgard.
“At that time in our nation’s history, federal infrastructure was important. That’s when a lot of stuff got built in the 1930s,” Baumgard said. “Now there’s other competing interests for our tax dollars.”
D.J. Moser has been the lock master at Lock 7 since 2003 where everything from 15-barge tows to kayaks pass through every day in the season. This year, the first northbound tow passed through Lock 7 on March 26 because Lake Pepin was slower to melt than in other years.
In the spring, Moser sees a lot of coal, fertilizer and road salt. In the fall, it’s mostly agricultural products after the harvest.
She’s seen the repair work done to keep the system working. She’s also aware of the inevitable problems.
“They’ve been updated quite a bit, but a lot of it is original parts — especially with the dams,” Moser said.
“Everything ages in time.”
Read the story here: https://www.jsonline.com/story/news/local/wisconsin/2018/06/01/critical-mississippi-river-lock-and-dam-system-crumbling/573693002/