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Farmers learn more about Illinois River closures

July 27, 2019   Deborah Gertz-Husar

Quincy Herald-Whig

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MEREDOSIA, Ill. -- All of Jon Boylen's grain ships on the Illinois River, so the Mount Sterling area farmer wonders what closing the river in 2020 for lock and dam repairs will mean to his farming operation.


Boylen got some answers Friday at a meeting in Meredosia, one of five sponsored by Illinois Farm Bureau in July and August to help farmers prepare for closures planned next year on the Illinois Waterway System by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Rock Island District.


"We're looking at trying to figure out what to do with our grain," Boylen said. "We need to make plans now to get ahead of the curve."


The corps' consolidated repair schedule called for a short closure of the Starved Rock and Marseilles Locks and Dams this summer and fall along with extended closures of six locks in 2020 and two in 2023.


Full closure of the LaGrange Lock and Dam is scheduled for July 1 to Sept. 30 for major rehabilitation and lock machinery replacement.


"LaGrange by far has the biggest scope of work, including complete replacement of all the lock and dam machinery, miter gate machinery, the valve machinery for filling and emptying the lock, upgraded control systems, all the concrete walls," said Mike Walsh, the corps' chief of locks and dams on the Illinois Waterway. "It won't be a brand-new lock, but it will be as close as we can get to a brand-new lock."


Full and partial closures also are planned at Peoria Lock and Dam for dewatering for maintenance and inspection, Starved Rock Lock and Dam for upper and lower miter gate installation, Marseilles Lock and Dam for upper miter gate installation and Dresden Island and Brandon Road Lock and Dam for upper bulkhead recess installation.


Most of the construction will be done between July 1 and Oct. 31 to avoid spring flooding season and fall harvest.


The final cost for the projects has not been determined, Walsh said, because only the contract for the LaGrange lock, totaling around $117 million, has been awarded. General contractor Aecom already is on site for staging and prep work for the 2020 closure.


All the work will "improve the reliability" of a system built in the late 1920s and opened in the early 1930s and will keep the waterway "an economic export route," Walsh said.


The work on the locks "is way overdue. The updates need to be done," Boylen said. "We're glad to see them. We'll work around them."


Much of Boylen's grain goes to Meredosia and Naples, both south of the LaGrange lock, before heading south to the Gulf of Mexico. But he hauls some to Beardstown, which will be impacted by the lock's closure.


Still, he's not too worried. "They still need the grain. It's just a matter of it might be more of a transportation cost," he said.


"Is it going to be a struggle? Absolutely," said Mark Hobrock, general manager of Western Grain Marketing in Rushville. "But I think we can find homes for the 2020 crop coming off a smaller 2019 crop."


From Meredosia south, river terminals will remain available for grain, and the rail market "really beefed up" to handle more grain to the north, Hobrock said.


Navigation on the rest of the river, between the locks, will not be affected by the closures. Recreational and commercial vessels will be able to navigate within the pools without restriction.


Growmark area sales and member risk manager Graham Utter said the business has been strategizing how to supply product with no interruptions during the closures.


"From a crop nutrient standpoint, I think there's going to be very little effect that the farmer sees on the basis of the locks being closed," Utter said. "The river is the cheapest way to move product by far, but the timing of the closure was right on for our business. We don't expect any, or very little, supply issues at any terminal that we operate."


But that could change if the closures extend far beyond the planned 60 to 120 days, without weather delays, with Starved Rock and LaGrange the two longest shutdowns.


"If a closure extended through winter possibly into spring in that worst-case scenario, we estimated $1.80 per acre would be like the max a farmer's price would be affected," Utter said.


Even then, Growmark has alternate plans in place including one for its Meredosia site.


"If we need to, we can unload barges at Meredosia and truck to some of our warehouses," he said. "Meredosia is going to be a location that's not affected by the closure. We've got a terminal at Havana that's relatively close. We can get there."