The American Society of Civil Engineers 2021 infrastructure report card released in March was less than perfect for the nation’s inland navigation system. According to the report, they gave the Inland waterway infrastructure a D+. The ASCE report said the infrastructure "includes locks and dams as well as navigation channels” but added that shipping delays cost up to $739 per hour for an average tow within the United States.
In its 2020 annual report, Waterways Council, Inc., noted that approximately 9,700 tows with 55,000 barges were delayed by an average of 12.23 hours across the entire inland navigation system in 2020. The delays resulted in an estimated cost to the economy of nearly $84 million. By comparison, unprecedented high water nation-wide in 2019 delayed more than 18,000 tows with more than 60,000 barges. The delays resulted in an estimated economic impact of nearly $166 million, according to the report.
While delays can be costly, the inland navigation system is still a reliable, cost-effective mode of transportation that is also the safest, most fuel-efficient, and most environmentally friendly. Shipping bulk commodities such as cement, coal, fertilizer, soybeans and corn, on the Upper Mississippi River is a simple decision for many producers – it saves money. In Minnesota, corn production is credited with contributing $160 million in economic output, according to a 2019 U.S. Department of Agriculture report aptly titled, “The Importance of Inland Waterways to U.S. Agriculture.” According to the National Waterways Foundation, in 2018, the state of Minnesota’s ports, inland waterways, and inland waterways-dependent industries supported nearly 460,000 jobs.
“This system is so important to agribusiness and our agriculture producers in getting products to the market,” said Bryan Peterson, St. Paul District navigation business line manager. He said agriculture producers save around $1 per bushel when shipping their corn and soybeans via the river compared to other transportation modes such as trains or trucks and added that shippers saved around $400 million in 2020 just within the St. Paul District. According to the USDA report, it’s estimated that farm products moved via barge saves farmers anywhere between $7 and $9 billion annually. This includes commodities shipped on the Upper Mississippi River.
From Minneapolis to St. Louis, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mississippi Valley Division, and its St. Paul, Rock Island and St. Louis districts work every day to ensure the Upper Mississippi River 9-foot navigation channel provides shippers with a safe, reliable mode of transportation for the movement of goods, said Peterson. The nearly 90-year-old infrastructure consists of 28 Upper Mississippi River locks and dams that ensure navigation across different water depths. Together, these locks and dams act as a series of stairsteps for towboats to move their goods from St. Paul to St. Louis. The river is deep enough, and the elevation drop is gradual enough, for navigation south of St. Louis that locks are not needed.
Waterways infrastructure continues to provide economic savings as well as security to the Upper Midwest but requires additional maintenance to ensure it continues performing as it was designed in the 1930s, said Peterson. Recognizing the importance of continued maintenance and eyeing an opportunity to fight back against Mother Nature, Peterson said Corps staff and contractors up and down the Upper Mississippi River galvanized together this past winter to complete more than a dozen major maintenance projects on the locks and dams. He said he is proud that the team worked tirelessly to get the projects finished in time for the start of the 2021 Upper Mississippi River navigation season. Peterson added that the official opening of the navigation could have occurred up to 12 days earlier than March 31 when the first tow originating from south of St. Louis arrived in St. Paul, but stressed the importance of completing these maintenance projects for the long-term reliability of the system made the delay necessary.
Collectively, he said the Mississippi Valley Division invested more than $30 million on maintenance projects at 13 Upper Mississippi River locks and dams during the 2020-2021 winter. These repairs are vital to maintain the system, added Peterson. If the system was no longer viable, shippers would be required to use trains and trucks to move their goods. A 15-barge tow can move as much goods as 1,050 semi-trucks or 216 rail cars, he added.
“The repairs varied in size and scope,” said Peterson. In the St. Paul District, Corps staff focused their efforts on replacing miter gates anchorages at Lock and Dam 2, near Hastings, Minnesota; straightening miter gates at Lock and Dam 3, near Red Wing, Minnesota; dewatering Lock and Dam 4, near Alma, Wisconsin, for major maintenance repairs that occur approximately every 20 years; and upgrading tow rails at Lock and Dam 5, near Minnesota City, Minnesota, and Lock and Dam 5A, near Fountain City, Wisconsin. The tow rail upgrades assist upbound tows to safely maneuver through the lock.
Aaron Dunlop, Rock Island District operations manager, added that his district also completed many maintenance projects this past winter. The projects included rehabilitating one of the gearboxes needed for miter gate operation and repairing a submersible dike at Lock and Dam 13, near Fulton, Illinois; dewatering Lock and Dam 14, near LeClaire, Iowa, for major maintenance repairs; repairing guidewall and hydropower turbines at Lock and Dam 15, Rock Island, Illinois; replacing a miter gate and supporting the U.S. Geologic Survey as they installed an experimental acoustic deterrent to prevent Asian carp migration at Lock and Dam 19, near Keokuk, Iowa; and embedding gate anchorages at Lock and Dam 21, near Quincy, Illinois, and Lock and Dam 22, near Saverton, Missouri.
Andy Schimpf, St. Louis District Rivers Project operations manager, said the St. Louis District focused on repairing the miter gates and replacing the gates’ anchorages and repairs to the lower guidewall and scouring at Lock and Dam 25, near Winfield, Missouri, and several repairs during a dewatering of Lock and Dam 27, near Granite City, Illinois.
Despite the many hours worked and repairs completed this winter, Peterson said he knows the job is far from complete, with more work to be done to sustain the reliable system our partners depend upon. “We will continue to address the highest priority projects within the Mississippi Valley Division through the prioritization of maintenance process to assure the limited funding goes toward the projects that represent the highest risk to the system,” he said.