Battle Lines Drawn Over Mississippi Locks

The Army Corps of Engineers is proposing spending billions of dollars to expand locks along the Mississippi River, but environmentalists say it’s a waste of money. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Katherine Glover has the story:


The Army Corps of Engineers is proposing spending billions of dollars to expand locks
along the Mississippi River, but environmentalists say it’s a waste of money. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Katherine Glover has the story:

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has compiled a study that suggests the nation needs to
spend billions of dollars improving navigation on the Upper Mississippi River. It would
expand or add locks at dams on the Mississippi from Minnesota to just above St. Louis,
Missouri. The Corps has similar plans for the Illinois River, which stretches from near
Chicago to near St. Louis.

Tow boats push barges full of grain downstream, carrying 60 percent of the nation’s grain
exports. They use the Mississippi lock and dam system, which was built in the 1930’s.
The Corps of Engineers built the lock and dam system to ensure the water would remain
deep enough to keep barge traffic moving year round. The locks that allowed barges
through the dams were adequate for the time. But today, towboats are pushing groups of
barges twice as long as they were in the 1930’s. To get through the locks, they must
separate into groups and then reconnect on the other side.

Denny Lundberg is the project manager of the Corps’ navigation study. He says the
Mississippi River system is an important corridor for the grain trade and the aging current
locks could put Midwest farmers at a disadvantage.

“What the Mississippi River does is provides a transportation system for certain key
exports and helps the nation’s balance of trade and it does this by saving roughly 60 to 70
percent of the cost of shipping over that distance by rail… so the existing system out
there generates about a billion dollars annual transportation cost savings to the nation.”

Farmers are in favor of expanding the locks. Gerald Tumbleson farms in Southern
Minnesota. He attended a public hearing on the Corps’ recommendations.

“The problem of the system now is it is too slow. Now, you might say it delayed an hour
or two on a barge or something like that, but when you start adding those up over a
period of time that’s a lot of hours.”

Tumbelson says that delays lead to increased transportation costs, bringing down the
price he can get for his products. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ proposal would
speed up the system by building seven new locks and five lock extensions, as well as
other smaller measures to speed river navigation.

The Corps’ proposal also includes money to help restore some of the ecosystems that
have been damaged by the Corps’ navigation projects in the past. But many
environmentalists are skeptical that anything will be done for the environment.

In a study called Twice Cooked Pork, a coalition of environmental and taxpayer
groups say they found major flaws with the Corps’ conclusions in its proposal. The
groups say that barge traffic on the river is declining, not increasing. They say there’s
more domestic demand for grain and other products, so there’s not as great a need to ship
it downriver. And the groups say the project will be the most expensive waterway project
in history, but will only benefit the barge industry. And they add… it will benefit the
Corps itself.

Mark Muller of the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy is skeptical that the
proposed project would have any benefit for people like farmer Gerald Tumbleson.

“I don’t think it really matters if we have longer locks or not, that doesn’t mean our
exports are going to increase, and unless we have an increase in exports we’re not going
to have any benefits to farm income.”

Critics say given the Army Corps of Engineers’ history, there’s plenty of reason to be
skeptical of the Corps’ findings. In 2000, a whistleblower within the Corps revealed he
was pressured to falsify statistics to justify spending billions of dollars on Corps projects
along the Mississippi. Further investigation by both the Pentagon and the National
Research Council revealed widespread flaws and corruption in the Corps’ research and

But the Corps says the current proposal came after many public hearings, and extensive
consultation with other federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Army Corps of Engineers’ Denny Lundberg says those public meetings and
discussions had a role in developing the current proposal.

“And we have taken that and developed a combined plan to try to seek a balance out on
the river so this integrated plan really serves as a framework for being able to operate and
maintain the system both for navigation and for the environment.”

The Corps will continue taking public comments on the draft report until July 30th. In
the fall, they will present their final report to Congress, which has the final say on the
river’s future.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Katherine Glover.

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