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Inland operators prepare for Illinois Waterway closure

December 27, 2019   The Paducah Sun

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Local operators on the nation's inland waterways system are preparing for the planned closure of the Illinois Waterway in 2020, and its impact on their industry.


The Illinois Waterway provides a navigable connection between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is planning to consolidate full closures into the same year, rather than closing one or two locks each year. In 2020, the Corps plans to work at six sites concurrently, with four locks requiring dewatering.


The closure is planned for July through October, in an effort to avoid historical spring flooding seasons and the fall harvest season.


In conjunction with a meeting of marine industry representatives in Paducah earlier this month for the Seamen's Church Institute's River Bell Award, several local operators discussed challenges faced by the industry this year, and the challenge represented in 2020 by the Illinois Waterway closure.


"You've got a lot of grain commodities that move on it (Illinois Waterway), liquid commodities, steel commodities, some critical production sources of commodities and end markets for things that get moved," said Matt Rickets, president/CEO of Crounse Corp.


"The Corps (is) trying to do a good job coordinating all this because they're working on multiple lock and dam infrastructures. They think (the closure) is going to be around 120 days. They've got to take some time, spend some dollars, make some investment to get these old infrastructures fixed so they can continue to operate."


While 120 days is a long time for such a major artery to be shut down, a single close will add efficiency to the project from a cost standpoint, according to Damon Judd, president of Marquette Transportation.


"From an industry standpoint, if that artery's cut off, we'd rather kind of take our lumps and have one closure than have six separate interruptions," he said.


"It will be painful in 2020 without question, but at least it will (hopefully) be one year of pain versus six. ..."


It also will be far less painful than a catastrophic failure of the system, that could come with no warning and keep the system shut down, according to Deb Calhoun, senior vice president of the Waterways Council Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization.


"That's what keeps us all up at night," she said.


Barry Gipson, executive vice president of James Marine Inc., added: "The Corps is having to do this, obviously because those locks are old."


"If we're going to reach these points where we are now on the Illinois and some of these old lock systems on the upper Mississippi, it's time to pay the piper. They're going to have to fix them.


"The Corps making the right decision to get them all fixed at the same time, it's just going to dramatically affect all our operations."


Dealing with the closure will take a lot of coordination among operators, according to Judd.


"There will be a lot of northbound products that serve as inputs to people doing business above the closure that will move in advance of the closure, and there's coordination going on right now in terms of how to store inventory on the river and find space to make sure we don't disrupt manufacturing and supply for people who rely on the river," he said.


The WCI and its operators continue to stress the need for fair and adequate funding of the inland waterways system. Their efforts to emphasize the system's importance in the nation's overall transportation supply chain was bolstered by a USDA study released at the end of August.


"We're always trying to convince members of Congress that this (inland waterways) is critical infrastructure," Calhoun said. "It really is the backbone of our transportation logistics system. The title of the study, 'Importance of Inland Waterways to U.S. Agriculture,' tells you everything you need to know. The ag sector simply could not compete (without the inland waterways)."


According to the study, U.S. farmers and agribusinesses, as well as the overall U.S. economy and balance of trade, depend upon and benefit from the inland waterways and its infrastructure, which provide a safe, low-cost, environmentally sustainable way to move grain and other agricultural products.


"We're moving lots of energy commodities and aggregate materials and the like, but the grain we're moving is so important for export and really, feeding the world," Calhoun said.