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Opinion: Upper Mississippi River infrastructure finally gets its due

February 10, 2022   St. Paul Pioneer-Press

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A barge powers its way up the Mississippi River past St. Louis, Tuesday, April 14, 2020.

A barge powers its way up the Mississippi River past St. Louis, Tuesday, April 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

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The majestic Mississippi River that runs through our country starts at the headwaters at Itasca State Park on its long journey to the Gulf Coast. This natural gem creates opportunities for recreation, commercial transportation, hydropower, municipal and industrial water supply, and national security. What ensures these beneficial opportunities are the locks and dams on the Mississippi and the other major inland rivers that act much like an elevator to ensure that vessels can navigate across differing depths.

Among these vessels are barges, which carry a tremendous amount of cargo up and down the river efficiently and in environmentally sound ways.


In 2018, for example, Minnesota’s inland waterways moved 12 million tons of cargo valued at $3.2 billion, equivalent to 300,000 trucks on our roadways. Commodities transported include corn and soybeans for global export; cement, steel, and aggregate materials for construction; salt for icy roads, and many more.


While those cargoes support our modern economy today, most of the locks and dams on the inland waterways system were constructed during President Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s, many having far exceeded their design life of 50 years. Late last year, the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (the bipartisan infrastructure package) was signed into law, and it provides $2.5 billion to help modernize the inland waterways lock and dam system.


Last month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released plans outlining specific inland waterways projects that received funding from the Infrastructure Package. Funding to completion was design and construction for Lock 25 on the Mississippi River.  Lock 25, just upstream of St. Louis, Mo., is the cornerstone of the Navigation & Ecosystem Sustainability Program, which was established to modernize seven locks with 1,200-foot lock chambers — five on the Upper Mississippi River and two on the Illinois Waterway — and also provide funding for ecosystem restoration efforts for the river.  A long time to achieve success, that program was authorized in 2007.

Minnesota U.S. Sens Klobuchar and Smith, and U.S. Reps. McCollum, Craig, Emmer, Fishbach, Stauber, Hagedorn, and Phillips, supported this momentous achievement.


The equation is simple: If the United States doesn’t continue investing in its lock and dam infrastructure then our ability to favorably compete in the global market will decline. As our global market presence erodes, other parts of the world – particularly China and South America – will continue investing in their infrastructure, thereby growing their markets to overtake ours here in the United States.

The inland waterways transportation system moves commerce in the most energy-efficient, environmentally friendly, sustainable, traffic-congestion-relieving way, and keeps our U.S. economy booming. Minnesota’s ports, inland waterways and inland waterways-dependent industries support more than 460,000 jobs.


Modernizing the inland waterways infrastructure that is critical to Minnesota means growth in this century and beyond. Lock 25 is a great place to start.


Lee Nelson is president of Upper River Services LLC, St. Paul.