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Corps to remove clog in ag export artery

March 21, 2022   Quad Cities Business Journal

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Corps to remove clog in ag export artery

Quad Cities Business Journal – Davenport, IA – 3/21/22 – Kenda Burrows


Quad Citians won’t have a front-row seat for the historic lock and dam upgrade investment being made in the critical Mississippi River transportation artery relied upon by the world’s agricultural export market.


But the bi-state Quad Cities region will reap the rewards of an overall $1.2 billion infusion of federal infrastructure funds for upgrading the Mississippi River grain superhighway through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Rock Island District. In addition to river navigation, the new funding also will help protect and restore critical ecosystems on the Mississippi and Des Plaines rivers and the Great Lakes.


The $1.2 billion is from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), and the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program (NESP). The bulk of the work will happen outside the Quad Cities, but it won’t lessen its impact on our region’s agricultural corridor.


The biggest ticket item, “the $829 million investment in locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi River is a huge win for our local economy, jobs, farmers, trade and the environment,” said U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos. The Moline Democrat, along with Illinois’ two U.S. Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, has been championing upgrading the aging system.


“After a years-long effort with Senators Durbin and Duckworth to modernize our most important inland waterway, this funding will help our agricultural producers bring goods to market faster, increase trade by speeding up the transport of American products, spur job creation, alleviate supply chain stress and help reduce transportation emissions,” Ms. Bustos said. “I’m looking forward to seeing this monumental investment take shape in the years to come.”


Among agricultural leaders trumpeting what is the largest river navigation investment in a century is Steve Pitstick, president of the Illinois Soybean Association (ISA). The association represents more than 43,000 soybean farmers in Illinois. “These long overdue modernizations to the waterways will replace a system that was designed over 100 years ago, enabling today’s Illinois farmers to continue to remain competitive and send their products to customers around the world,” he said.


According to Deanne Bloomberg, director of policy management for the Illinois Farm Bureau (IFB), “This lock and dam investment is decades in the making and the dollars are there to start the work on these locks and dams. American agriculture, especially QC area farmers rely on river transportation to get their crops to the export market. So many farmers have spent decades pushing for modernization of these locks and dams, and we are finally getting there.”


Ms. Bloomberg, a Quad Cities area native, also said, “The last few years have demonstrated the need for our crops in the worldwide supply chain – and river transportation is the best method.”


Added Randy DeSutter, a National Corn Growers Association board member and a Henry County farmer from Woodhull, Illinois: “The upgrades to our locks and dams will make U.S. farmers more competitive in world markets for generations.”


But farmers aren’t the only ones who will win, added Mr. DeSutter, who also is a past president of the Illinois Corn Growers Association. “Since many products also come up the river, consumers will benefit and thousands of construction jobs will be created for the upgrades.”


Col. Jesse Curry, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Rock Island District, said in late January the new funding “vastly outnumbers the figures our district’s annual budget has ever seen. It’s testament to our professional workforce that they are trusted to carry out the kind of workload this funding will bring.”


Consider that in a typical year, his district might see less than a quarter of that total to maintain and operate locks on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, according to Allen Marshall, the Rock Island District’s public affairs officer.


Those dollars primarily finance the operations and maintenance of the lock and dam system that corps employees do every day, often under challenging conditions. Last month Quad Citians, including Ms. Bustos, got a peek at some of those challenges when the agency offered a look inside the drained lock below the surface of the Mississippi River at Lock and Dam 15 in Rock Island.


The $170 million boost in operation and maintenance funds the Rock Island District will receive for such operations through the IIJA will be welcome, the Corps said. 


“So much of our operational infrastructure, like locks and dams, lakes, and recreation sites, are aging,” Col. Curry said. “Our managers and maintenance crews do an excellent job of keeping this infrastructure operating efficiently but even in areas where we’ve made recent investments, there is a need for more to safeguard long-term reliability of this infrastructure. Infrastructure that is critical to our nation’s economy, environment, and well-being of our communities. This new funding coming from the infrastructure investment will not only provide much of that needed investment to infrastructure, but it will also bring thousands of great jobs of all types to the region.”


The majority of the funding going to the Corps of Engineers for the Upper Mississippi Valley is earmarked for the following projects:


- Construction of a new 1,200-foot lock at Lock & Dam 25, located north of St. Louis, to remove a dangerous, costly and time-consuming bottleneck.


- Creation of a fish passage at Lock & Dam 22 in Saverton, Missouri, to allow native fish species to move between pools even when the locks are closed.


- Pre-construction, engineering and design of the Brandon Road Interbasin Project on the Des Plaines River in Joliet, Illinois, to prevent the invasive Asian carp species from entering the Great Lakes.


The Lock 25 expansion has been at the top of the wishlist of farmers, industry leaders and lawmakers for decades. In fact, Mr. Pitstick said the “ISA and Illinois Corn Growers worked together to support the Waterways Council’s education campaign, and to be very vocal about the need for this funding allocation. ISA joined the Soy Transportation Coalition and other soybean groups to help bundle funds to help move the pre-engineering and design work on Lock 25 forward.”


Importantly, the funded Lock 25 project is expected to be the first of seven 1,200-foot lock chamber expansions authorized by NSEP. The next one scheduled to be authorized is the LaGrange lock and dam near Grafton, Illinois, the Corps of Engineers said.


The new 1,200-foot lock chamber at Lock and Dam 25 near St. Louis will be built adjacent to the original chamber and upstream/downstream approach walls, which should result in very rare shutdowns during construction, the Rock Island District’s Mr. Allen said. 


Shutdowns, he added, are called “a single point of failure.”


“There is no detour on the river,” he said, which means there is nowhere to turn when a lock goes down. The impact of those failures is dramatic. A study commissioned by the National Waterways Foundation and the U.S. Maritime Administration estimated that the cost of an unplanned closure of Lock 25 would result in a $1.57 billion loss to the economy, impacting 132 counties in 17 states.


Consider, too, what happened in Tennessee in May 2021. A crack in a Mississippi River Bridge closed river traffic, stalling more than 700 barges moving grain and other goods near Memphis.


“The river is the jugular for the export market in the Midwest for both corn and beans,” Colin Hulse, a senior risk management consultant at StoneX in Kansas City, said in various media reports. “The length of the blockage is important. If they cannot quickly get movement, then it is a big deal. If it slows or restricts movement for a longer period it can be a big deal as well.”


Traffic eventually was rerouted, but not before the stoppage impacted the commodities market.


Even routine daily bottlenecks at Lock 25 are expensive, however. And delays of two or more hours are not uncommon as a typical 15-barge tow carrying, say, more than 800 bushels of soybeans, is required to stop and disassemble so it can make two passes through that narrower nine-foot chamber. Navigating the lock in a single pass will not only take between 30-45 minutes in total, it also will be safer for crew members who won’t have to crawl around to break a single raft of barges into two, Mr. Allen said.