Upgrading the Rivers


by Mike Kroll

While it’s easy to take the nearby Mississippi River for granted, every once in a while, such as the great flood of 1993, we are reminded of its importance. The Mississippi River Basin encompasses 40 percent of this country and 1.2 million square miles. This river itself stretches for 2,302 miles and literally splits the country in half. It also provides habitat for hundreds of species: 241 fish; 45 amphibians; 50 mammals; 37 mussels and nearly half of all American migratory birds. It is also home to upwards of 12 million people who live in 125 counties immediately adjacent to the river itself and many million more who, like Galesburgers, are just a bit further removed from the riverbank.

Even when the massive flooding is but a distant memory, the river engenders controversy. Political decisions are about to be made that pit the various interests of this region against one another. The care of this waterway falls under the responsibility of the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers who are bound by federal statute to balance the environmental, economic, recreational and general public interest as they manage what everyone agrees is a uniquely significant resource.

For most of human existence, the impact people made on the environment was given scant attention. By the 1960s, it became impossible to ignore the damage being done as industry polluted the air and water and consumed natural resources with reckless abandon. During Richard Nixon’s presidency, the Environmental Protection Agency was created and sweeping environmental legislation was passed. Today, 30-some years later, great strides have been made to clean up the environment and the sensitivity to environmental impacts – real or potential – has been greatly heightened.

The use and abuse of the Mississippi River is an excellent case in point. Thousands of public works projects were undertaken during the depression of the 1930s that have had a profound impact on America ever since. Not the least of which wasd the construction of a series of locks and dams. The once wild and unpredictable Mississippi was domesticated and tamed by a system that controlled river flow from its origin in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. The locks and dams were part of a much larger flood control system that made it possible for cities and towns along the river’s edge to concurrently reduce the negative economic impact of periodic flooding while maximizing the positive economic value of river commerce.

Completion of the Mississippi River system of 27 locks and dams coupled with dredging a uniform channel depth of nine feet or greater has transformed the river into one of this country’s greatest transportation systems for bulk cargo to and from the heartland. Innumerable agricultural products, notably including corn and soybeans, travel south while everything from cement to petroleum products travel north. According to a report from the National Corn Growers Association, "60 percent of U.S. bulk agricultural exports are moved to world ports via the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Rivers."

The Illinois and Iowa Corn Growers Association and the Corps of Engineers conducted barge tours Tuesday out of Burlington, Iowa. Earlier, they had run some out of Quincy and several places along the Illinois River. For these tours the Corps of Engineers provided a flat-top barge while Alter Barge Line of Bettendorf supplied the boat, Phyllis. The tour consisted of a trip north to Lock 18 near Gladstone where participants experienced "locking through" twice, once northbound and then southbound for the return trip to Burlington. Traveling on the barge was amazingly quiet and smooth – as well as surprisingly fast. Throughout the trip, speakers repeatedly presented the case for expanding and modernizing the locks and dams along the upper Mississippi between St. Louis and Keokuk.

The key issue for proponents of this plan is optimizing the Mississippi as a cost-efficient transportation corridor for bulk cargo. The Phyllis and dozens of other tug boats regularly push tows of 15 laden barges between St. Louis and St. Paul in a round trip that averages 17 days. A disproportionate amount of that time is spent traversing the five locks between St. Louis and Keokuk, each of which was constructed over 60 years ago and can accommodate barge tows of 600 feet in length. "These locks were designed for the technology of the 19th century," explained Paul Rohde, vice president of Midwest Area River Coalition 2000 (MARC 2000). "At the time the boats pushing barges simply didn’t have the horsepower to push larger tows than six loaded barges. Today’s boats are much more powerful and regularly push tows of 15 barges."

MARC 2000 is an agribusiness economic development coalition promoting further development of the Mississippi River corridor. Their literature boasts that barge transportation is the most cost-effective and "environmentally and socially friendly" method of moving bulk cargo and I was unable to find any source to contradict that. Figures compiled by the Iowa Department of Transportation and cited by a number of Tuesday’s speakers point out that a single barge carries 1,500 tons of cargo or 53,000 bushels of corn. A single jumbo hopper railcar can haul 100 tons or 3,500 bushels while a semi-trailer carries a "mere" 26 tons or 910 bushels.

These numbers mean that a single 15-barge tow can carry the equivalent of 870 semis or 2.25 100-car grain trains at a transportation cost far below either of the alternatives. "The simple fact is that river transportation is the best transportation value by far," said Rohde. "Not only does this translate into better profitability for farmers but it also serves to put downward pressure on the transportation prices of the competition. When a lock is out of service blocking river transport the price of rail and truck transport gets hiked markedly and the available capacity is insufficient to handle the volume."

For the ten-person crew of the Phyllis and her sister vessels hauling bulk cargo up and down the river is hard and dangerous work that operates non-stop 24 hours per day. "Our crews operate in six hour shifts around the clock for thirty days at a stretch," stated Bruce Cary, vice president of Alter. "The crew is made up of two shifts including a pilot, engineer, mate and deckhand. In the upper Mississippi we add an extra deckhand to assist in all the locks and each boat also has a cook who prepares three meals per day."

Phyllis’ First Mate Lane "Tiny" Eiler is responsible for the tow of barges, lookout duty and miscellaneous maintenance of the boat and barges. Deckhand is the entry-level job in the barge business and Tiny is responsible for training and supervising them on the Phyllis. "It’s hard, physical work and after a six hour shift you really appreciate the opportunity to relax and get some sleep. Most new guys quickly learn that you are lucky to get four hours of uninterrupted sleep. When your shift ends you may unwind for a bit with a book or watching TV but you quickly prioritize the time for eating and sleeping."

Alter apparently takes maintenance very seriously. The 140 foot long Phyllis was immaculate inside and out. Her twin engines ("Nearly every mechanical system is redundant," noted Chief Engineer Eldon Keymon.) together generate 4200 horsepower and they can push their tow with a single engine if necessary. They carry just about everything they need for a 30-day duty cycle with fuel, food and potable water replenished as they move up or down the river. "Time is money in this business and there’s no such thing as shore leave," according to Cary. "The key to a happy crew is always the cook," noted Tiny. "Our cook [Anita Ray] is very good and we eat well on the boat–I didn’t earn my nickname by skipping too many meals," he added with a smile.

Moving a tow of barges up and down the river is no simple feat. There is a surprising amount of river traffic and the tolerances for pilot error are small. Each barge is 35 feet wide and about 200 feet long; when tied into a 15-barge tow the width is 105 feet while the width of a lock is a mere 110 feet. "You only have a total of five feet leeway between the sides of the lock and a minor error in judgment can get a deckhand killed or badly damage a barge," said Phyllis’ Captain Kenny Martin.

The whole point of this excursion was to drum up support for a massive project to expand and rehabilitate the aging lock and dam infrastructure on the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. "The Corp plan is to complete the Upper Mississippi River Navigation Study by July of next year," said Elizabeth Bina Croker, director of public policy for the National Corn Growers and their Washington, D.C. lobbyist. "Ultimately we are anticipating authorization to expand or replace five 600-foot locks on the Mississippi and two on the Illinois with 1,200 foot locks along with other improvements totaling between $1.2 and $1.5 billion over the next 20 years. I am very excited about the potential for Congressional support. Right now I am unaware of any Congressional opposition within the river basin."

With the present 600-foot locks each 15-barge tow must be broken into two parts to navigate through each lock. Then reassembled on the far side of the lock this greatly increased the time each tow requires to clear a lock adding to river congestion as well as the transportation costs of shippers. With the proposed 1200-foot locks the entire tow would pass through the lock in one motion and in less than half the time.

"A key to the success of this project is that nearly half the money is already available," noted Rohde. "The fuel surcharge that is paid by the towboat industry has accumulated to a fund of over $400 million dollars already and over the course of this project’s 20 time span should be sufficient to pay for half the project if Congress will authorize the remaining necessary funds. The economic impact of this decision will have far reaching effects throughout agriculture in the Midwest."

Now were hardly speaking of chump change here but to put this in context the bailout of the airline industry amounted to nearly $14 billion in a much shorter time span with almost no serious study by either Congress or the Federal Aviation Administration. Not unlike the schizophrenic approach toward Amtrak Congress has historically under funded the inland waterways for decades. That is the opinion of William Gretten, operations manager of the Mississippi River Project for the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. Gretten is a civilian engineer responsible for the day-to-day operation of the Mississippi River including all of the locks and dams.

"We have the smallest lock crews in the U.S. A crew of just 13 men operates the lock we just went through 24-7 and simultaneously handle all of the maintenance. Locking tows through is most probably the easiest part of their job. Keeping equipment that dates back to the depression in continuous operation is far more of a challenge but we cannot afford to be out of service. We keep these locks operational and ice-free 12 months of the year, even when the river itself is not navigable. From my perspective the system of locks and dams is well under funded and I have a tremendous need to simply fix what I already have in place. My backlog of just the critical deferred maintenance alone exceeds $100 million right now."

Opposition to this project is amazingly hard to find. Those who oppose modernization and or expansion of the lock and dam facilities on the upper Mississippi are confined essentially to the national environmental groups such as the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club. Both groups object to the environmental damage to the river basin ecosystem that has been wrought by the taming of the river. They point to the loss of wetlands that were once created by the vast flood plains adjacent to the Mississippi as well as the reduction in water flow that is the result of the dam projects. These environmental groups not only want to block lock and dam modernization, they apparently would like to see the Mississippi returned to it natural state of the 18th century.

Of course the economic and human costs of such change would be tremendous. Without flood control many cities, homes and businesses that now can be found along the Mississippi would be flooded out. Realistically this goal seems far-fetched and even the environmental groups have to acknowledge that the negative impacts of the barge industry pales in comparison to the alternatives (rail and truck).

The threat most likely to derail the modernization of locks and dams in the Mississippi River basin is the humongous federal budget deficit created since the Bush administration took office. That’s why the agricultural commodity groups, shippers and trade unions have gotten together to mount such a massive lobbying effort despite only token opposition.