Fact Sheet 13: Comparing Navigation

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District
Published May 8, 2015
Updated: March 14, 2023
The Motor Vessel R. Clayton McWhorter

The Motor Vessel R. Clayton McWhorter, originating from the Quad Cities in Iowa and Illinois and pushing 12 barges en route to St. Paul, Minnesota, was locked through Lock and Dam 3, near Welch, Minnesota, March 19, around 1:45 p.m. The tow marks the unofficial start of the 2021 navigation season.

Lock and Dam 1, Minneapolis, Minn. Upper Mississippi River mile 847.9

Lock and Dam 1, Minneapolis, Minn. Upper Mississippi River mile 847.9

Advantages of Inland Waterways Transport

Advantages of Inland Waterways Transport

Water Transportation

Roughly 25% of all waterborne commerce in the U.S. and 92% of the nation’s agricultural exports take place on the Mississippi River, the fourth largest river in the world.

The St. Paul District is responsible for supporting inland navigation by operating 13 locks and dams and by maintaining the 9-foot navigation channel on the Mississippi River for 243.6 river miles. The district’s navigation program provides a safe, reliable, cost-effective and environmentally sustainable waterborne transportation system on the Upper Mississippi River for the movement of commercial goods and for national security needs.

On average, nearly 17 million tons of commodities pass through Lock and Dam 10 in Guttenberg, Iowa, each year, which is the district’s southern border. The industries making these shipments saved nearly $430 million by using the river instead of overland shipping methods.

Water transportation consumes much less energy per ton-mile of freight carried than either rail or truck. This factor, combined with the remoteness of the vessel's operating environment from population centers, substantially reduces the impact of its exhaust emissions. Hydrocarbon vapor emissions from tank ships and barges, while loading or unloading petroleum products, amount to approximately .02% of all volatile organic emissions nationally.

Protection of the marine environment from pollution is a major concern shared by the barge and towing industry with both federal and state environmental agencies. The U.S. Coast Guard has law enforcement responsibilities relating to the protection of the marine environment, and many of its vessel safety regulations have been enacted to serve this purpose. Additionally, the Clean Air Act of 1990 required installation of vapor recovery systems to reduce emissions of petroleum and petrochemical vapors on barges designed to carry liquid. Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Transportation Mode Comparison

Barges can move one ton of cargo 675 miles per gallon of fuel. A rail car would move the same ton of cargo 472miles, and a truck only 151 miles. It takes one barge, 16 rail cars or 70 trucks to move 1,750 short tons of dry cargo or one barge, 46 rail cars or 144 trucks to move 27,500 barrels of liquid cargo. Source: National Waterways Foundation

Barges have the smallest carbon footprint among other transportation modes. To move one identical amount of cargo by rail generates 30% more carbon dioxide than by barge and 1,000 percent more emissions by trucks than by barge. Per million ton-miles moved, 16.41 tons of carbon dioxide is produced by barge, 21.35 tons by rail and 171.83 by truck. Source: National Waterways Foundation