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'An incredible system': 1930s-era Peoria Lock and Dams included in $829 million for waterway improvements (audio)

February 3, 2022   WCBU NPR

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Imagine you're sitting at the Peoria Riverfront gazing out over the Illinois River. You notice a large industrial boat chugging along, traveling south from Chicago towards St. Louis.


That barge will glide past Peoria with ease. But just south of the city, the barge will stop at a lock and dam located on the Tazewell County side of the river, in Creve Coeur.


Here, workers will lock the barge inside a 600-foot chamber and level the water underneath, so that the barge can safely pass through the dam. This process will be repeated several times before the Illinois River merges with the Mississippi, north of St. Louis.

These locks and dams were built during the Great Depression. Thanks to the federal infrastructure bill, $829 million has been appropriated for repair work along the Illinois River.




Two locks along the Mississippi River are getting even more investments. Lock 22 north of Quincy will receive a brand-new water wildlife restoration project.


And north of St. Louis, the 600-foot chamber at Lock 25 will be expanded to 1200 feet. This will enable two-way barge traffic, while increasing the number of barges that can be locked through at a time.


U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL) said this is the largest investment in the Upper Mississippi waterways in modern history.

“When the lock and dam system was created, it was actually created for steamboats to get goods to market,” she said. “And then over time, we have these massive barges. … We now have 1200-foot barges.”


Del Wilkins is the president of the Illinois Marine Waterway Association. He said the best way to understand the impact of these repairs is to imagine a group of 15 barges in tow along the river.


Currently, the process of locking through a 600-foot chamber can take up to four to six hours, Wilkins said.

“One lockage in a nice 1200-foot chamber, you do the same operation within 30, 40, 50 minutes,” he said.

220125 Lock and Key - Del Wilkins, Illinois Marine Towing Inc. chairman - Copy.jpg

Hannah Alani WCBU

Standing alongside Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Illinois Marine Towing Association president Del Wilkins discusses the impacts of new funding for lock and dam systems.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) has been trying to get funding appropriated for these locks and dams for over two decades. He said that part of what finally sold the improvements was the combined economic and environmental impacts of doing nothing.

When compared to trailer trucks and trains, Durbin said the Upper Mississippi waterways are the most efficient – and environmentally friendly – way to move goods across the U.S.


“The cost-benefit ratio has ended conversation, decade after decade. It just wasn't going anywhere,” he said. “And then, finally, we broke through. And we sold them on the idea that ecosystem restoration, and the environmental aspects of these locks and dams, had to be taken into the calculation.”


Col. Jesse Curry leads the Rock Island district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Rock Island district will oversee the restoration of a fish passage north of Quincy, a project Curry said will "mitigate" negative effects of lock and dam infrastructure on the river system.

He called the investments "once in a century."


Corn and soybeans grown in the Midwest account for roughly 60% of the world's crop markets, Durbin said.

Marty Marr is the president of the Illinois Corn Growers Association. He has been hauling corn to the Illinois River since 1975.

A central Illinois farmer plants corn seed into the evening in Farmingdale, Ill.
A central Illinois farmer plants corn seed into the evening in Farmingdale, Ill.

A single barge can carry up to 70 truckloads of corn. So when it’s operating at peak efficiency, Marr said the Upper Mississippi waterways are far and away the best way for central Illinois farmers to transport crops.

“We haul to the river, it goes on a barge out on an elevator, heads on down to the river, out to the Gulf, and off into the world markets,” he said. “It’s just a system that's incredible to watch.”


The Peoria Lock and Dam’s 600-foot chamber is approved for expansion. However, this batch of funding coming out of the infrastructure bill will only cover basic maintenance.


While having a 1200-foot chamber in Tazewell County would be great, Marr said farmers appreciate any funding that’s directed the Tri-County’s way. When poorly maintained locks and dams close unexpectedly, he said the impacts are devastating.

“Lock and dam, when that happens to go down, have a failure of some sort there … it could affect 7,000 jobs, or $1.3 billion in annual labor income,” he said. “And approximately $2.4 billion dollars to the corn and soybean industry.”


Paul Rohde is the vice president for the Waterways Council, Inc.’s Midwest Area. He hopes the investment in expanding Lock 25 north of St. Louis will push the needle on future appropriations that could include funding for expanding the Peoria Lock and Dam’s chamber.

“I’d never in my wildest dreams imagined they’d fund the whole thing to completion,” Rohde said, regarding the chamber expansion at Lock 25 north of St. Louis. “At least we’ve got a new construction start. That sets a precedent for funding for other locks. … My argument to Congress now is, ‘Look, we’ve already got money … invested in the program. It doesn’t make sense to abandon it now. Let’s keep the process going.’”

Lock and Dam building Creve Couer.jpg

Hannah Alani / WCBU

The Peoria Lock and Dam building located in Tazewell County.

Most of the locks and dams were built between 1933 and 1939, and any money put toward “maintenance” typically just means the locks and dams are being brought up to 1930s standards, Rohde added. “This is the largest single investment the Mississippi River has ever seen.”


For now, Wilkins said current investments will be a boon to economies, from the Tri-County to beyond.

“We are in a global economy. … The more we can make our systems efficient and viable and reliable, the better we compete with this world,” he said. “One barge is the equivalent of 71 trucks. One barge is also equivalent to about 16 to 18 rail cars. … That is the ability to move commerce efficiently, with a carbon footprint that's better than any other mode.”


In the short-term, MidAmerica Carpenters Regional Council president Gary Perinar said the immediate $829 million budget will generate 90 million work hours and 230,000 jobs.


“The Mississippi River is a number one food producing river in the world,” he said. “I want you to know that our members standby ready to form a new generation of infrastructure to ensure America's continued supremacy in the global market.”