ST. PAUL, Minn. – The Motor Vessel Aubrey B. Harwell, Jr., is breaking its way through the ice of Lake Pepin today to become the first boat to kick off the unofficial start of the 2022 navigation season on the Upper Mississippi River. The tow, originating from Columbus Kentucky, and pushing nine barges en route to St. Paul, Minnesota, will pass through Lock and Dam 3, near Welch, Minnesota, today at roughly 2 p.m. or so, depending on conditions.
The tow is the first vessel of the 2021 navigation season to pass through Lake Pepin, which is the last major barrier for vessels reaching the head of the navigation channel in St. Paul, Minnesota. The lake, located between the Minnesota cities of Red Wing and Wabasha, is the last part of the river to break up, because the river is wider and subsequently the current is slower there than it is in other parts of the river. If a tow can make it through Lake Pepin, it can make it all the way to St. Paul. The Army Corps of Engineers measures ice thickness on Lake Pepin throughout the spring to report to tow companies about the impending ice-out.
This year’s first tow was about average. In the last 30 years, the average opening date of the navigation season has been March 20; last year, it was on March 19. The earliest date for an up-bound tow to reach Lock and Dam 2 near Hastings was March 4, which happened in 1983, 1984 and 2000. The latest arrival date in a non-flood year was April 4, 2008. Historic flooding in 2001 delayed the arrival of the first tow until May 11.
The St. Paul District maintains a 9-foot-deep navigation channel and operates 12 locks and dams to support navigation from Minneapolis to Guttenberg, Iowa. Keeping this system open is vital to the nation’s economy. On average, agricultural producers save around $1 per bushel on corn and soybeans by using the river to ship their commodities rather than other transportation methods. The commercial navigation industry estimates an annual average savings of nearly $400 million by using the inland waterways instead of overland shipping methods. In addition to the economic savings, navigation reduces the stress on our roads and bridges. A 15-barge tow can move as much bulk commodities as 1,050 semis or more than 200 rail cars.
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Release no. 22-026