The inland Mississippi River system plays a major role in transporting U.S. grains and oilseeds, especially soybeans. The inland Mississippi River system is comprised of navigable waterways that extend along the Gulf of Mexico from Houston, Texas to New Orleans, Louisiana, up to Tulsa, Oklahoma; Kansas City, Missouri; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Chicago, Illinois; Louisville, Kentucky; Charleston, West Virginia; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In order to maintain a 9-foot draft, the Upper Mississippi River and other rivers have locks and dams that create pools of water. A 9-foot draft is the minimum depth the Army Corps must maintain by law. A tremendous amount of grain and soybean exports originate on these waterways. In 2017, according to Army Corps’ Waterborne Commerce of the United States Part 2, from Minneapolis to the Mouth of Passes, barges transported close to 35 million tons of soybeans or more than 1.2 billion bushels. The importance of a well-functioning waterways system for U.S. soybean farmers, and the international buyers of those soybeans, cannot be overstated.

The Army Corps has an incredibly wide range of responsibilities with a limited level of funding that requires prioritization. The obvious answer seems to be to just take care of the higher volume river segments and ports. The issue with this, however, is that the lower volume river segments ultimately feed the higher volume river segments. The key is to find a balance between efficiently spending tax dollars while not shrinking the navigable areas of the whole system. Ultimately, the challenge becomes how to find money to tend for the lower volume river segments and ports.

The Gulf of Mexico and coastal ports are the ultimate location for imports and exports. So if those locations experience unexpected dredging issues, dredging dollars allocated for the rest of the system will be transferred. For example, on January 20, 2020, ocean vessels could only load to 40 feet 11 inches at mile marker 221.8 at Baton Rouge, Louisiana versus the authorized 45 feet. Typically, the Army Corps of Engineers dredges the lower Mississippi River to 47 feet for a 2-foot level of safety. Below Baton Rouge, vessels could load to 47 feet. If Baton Rouge were dredged to 47 feet, an ocean vessel could load heavier, which reduces the ocean freight cost on a per metric ton basis. The ability to easily justify spending money on higher volume river segments that generate huge economic returns results in lower volume locations receiving less funding.

For the lower volume ports and river segments, an improved budget greatly increases the odds that money will be available to help locations critical to farmers. Particularly important for U.S. soybean farmers, Mississippi Rivers and Tributaries (MR&T) will receive $26 million more in 2020, welcome news for an industry whose profit margin is dependent on shipping products to foreign customers. Equally important, the end user can procure the soybeans at a lower price. For the Army Corps, 2020 should be a great year. In addition to an extra $652 million in funding, in 2020, the expensive Olmsted Locks and Dams project on the Ohio River is winding down, providing extra funding for other very important maintenance projects in future years. This is especially important this year because of many lock and dam projects on the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois River that are currently underway.

For the agriculture sector, the Inland Mississippi River System is one of the greatest advantages the U.S. farmer has versus the rest of the world. The funding issues are important because many ports that are important to local farmers are very small in terms of cargo. In addition, the transportation system has evolved to assume the river would be accessible. For this reason, alternative transportation modes are limited. This situation was highlighted last year when record high water levels resulted in navigation issues across the Inland Mississippi River System preventing many supplies from reaching the ports in a timely, cost-effective manner.

One issue with government funding of waterways is that although navigable waterways are very important to the general population, most people rarely encounter the waterways during daily life.  Being out of sight and out of mind makes it more difficult to get voters’ attention compared to all of the other items in the Congressional general fund. The main source of funding for the locks and dams comes from the Army Corps’ operations and maintenance budget that covers everything from flower beds to major lock repairs. The operations and maintenance budget for the inland navigation system is funded through the Civil Works budget. The Army Corps maintains the system (dredging, minor repairs, etc.) using funds from the Corps Civil Works Budget (operations and maintenance).

Some lock and dams repair requirements called for a major rehabilitation that far exceeds the annual operations and maintenance funding but was diverting money from the operations and maintenance budget for emergency repairs to reopen the waterway to traffic or unscheduled maintenance. Unscheduled maintenance leads to emergency funding that is pulled from other planned maintenance projects meant to prevent future unscheduled closures, which in turn increases the odds of more unscheduled closures later because the planned maintenance was not performed. Although planned closures are not ideal, when the timing of the closure is known, the carriers and shippers have an opportunity to make operational changes. To help solve the funding issue, the cargo carriers asked Congress to create The Inland Waterways Trust Fund (“IWTF”) within the Water Resources Development Act of 1986 (the “WRDA”). The act can hold tax revenues in trust only to be used for projects which improve the safety, efficiency, and capacity of the U.S. waterways. The towing industry currently pays a 29 cent per gallon fuel tax that is matched by the general fund. The goal of a carrier fuel tax is to pay for major rehabilitation projects.

For the inland waterways, the Army Corps has some projects that are both major rehabilitation and new construction efforts funded through the cost sharing WRDA by the carriers. Lesser projects are paid 100% by the Army Corps through the operations and maintenance budget. The question becomes when does a project go from major maintenance that is paid 100% by the Army Corps to major rehabilitation that is co-funded by the carriers through a fuel tax? The matter gets stickier when the execution of major maintenance could arguably prevent major rehabilitation. Despite this situation, the carriers recognize the need to repair a very old lock and dam system to prevent unscheduled closures.  For agriculture, repairs to the Illinois River and Upper Mississippi River locks and dams are very important.

For a little background, the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway System includes 37 locks and 1,200 miles of navigable waterway in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages the 37 locks and dams on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers providing a water stairway of travel for commercial and recreational traffic from Minneapolis-St. Paul to St. Louis and from Chicago to the Mississippi River.

The 866 miles of the Upper Mississippi River begin in Minneapolis and end at the confluence of the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois. The 333 miles of the Illinois Waterway start in the Chicago Area Waterway and continue downstream to the Illinois River’s confluence with the Mississippi River at Grafton, Illinois. The Illinois Waterway is composed of seven water systems: Illinois River, Des Plaines River, Chicago Sanitary and Shipping Canal, South Branch Chicago River, Cal-Sag Channel, Little Calumet River and the Calumet River.

There are more than 580 manufacturing facilities, terminals, grain elevators, and docks that ship and receive tonnage in the Upper Mississippi River basin. Corn and soybeans dominate traffic on the system. For the Illinois River, almost 38 million tons was transported with food and farm products accounting for 15 million tons in 2017. Nearly four million tons were soybeans. From Minneapolis to the mouth of the Missouri River 72 million tons of cargo were transported with 40 million tons of that coming from the food and farm products category. Soybeans accounted for 12 million tons. It should be noted that Illinois River volume largely flows into the Upper Mississippi total volumes.

To put the importance of a navigable river system into perspective, a modern 15-barge tow transports the equivalent of 1,050 large semi-trucks (26,250 cargo tons, 875,000 bushels, or 17,325,000 gallons). In 2015, the 9-foot channel project generated an estimated $3 billion of transportation cost savings compared to its approximately $246 million operation and maintenance cost.

According to the Rock Island District of Army Corps:

Originally, six extended lock closures were planned for the summer of 2020 in order to complete long overdue maintenance on the aging infrastructure. Due to significant workload, the contractors involved are unable to undertake the maintenance work at Brandon Road Lock and Dam. Consequently, only five lock closures are now slated to include Starved Rock, Marseilles, Dresden Island, Peoria, and LaGrange Locks and Dams.


LaGrange Lock and Dam – Major Rehabilitation & Lock Machinery Replacement

Full closure scheduled July 1-Sept. 30

Peoria Lock and Dam – Dewatering for Maintenance and Inspection

Full closure scheduled July 6 – Sept. 30 (Updated 10/21/2019)

Starved Rock Lock and Dam – Upper & Lower Miter Gate Installation

Full closure scheduled July 1-Oct. 29 (Updated 8/2/2019)

Marseilles Lock and Dam – Upper Miter Gate Installation

Full closure scheduled July 6-Oct. 29 (Updated 10/21/2019)

Dresden Island – Upper Bulkhead Recess Installation

Partial Closure scheduled July 6-Oct. 3 and Oct. 25-Oct. 28 (Updated 10/21/2019)

Locks operational from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. with a 70-ft width restriction and no ability to pull unpowered barges.

Full Closure scheduled Oct. 4-Oct. 24 (Updated 10/21/2019)

In addition to the Illinois River, some critical backlog of maintenance items on the Upper Mississippi River is also receiving attention.

Repair L/D 15 Guide Wall 

Repair L/D 13 Overflow Spillway 

Repair L/D 15 Service Bridge 

Install Safety Guard Rail at Multiple Sites  

Repair Dock Wall at Mississippi River Service Base 

Repair Mississippi River Wing Dams  

Install newly procured Lock Gates (Miter and Lift) at LD’s 12, 15, 15A, and 19 

Repair Bulkhead Recesses at Starved Rock and Marseilles L/Ds 

Repair Peoria L/D Wicket Dam 

Repair Electrical Service & Sheet Pile Wall at Peoria Service Base 

Install newly procured Dam Gates (Tainter) at Dresden Island

The LaGrange Lock and Dam is central to the farming community as it is the last lock before the Illinois River joins with the Mississippi River. Of the 15 million tons of food and farm products transported on the Illinois River, 12 million tons came through the LaGrange Lock and Dam. In 2017, the average delay per tow was 7.95 hours. By comparison, Peoria Lock and Dam was only one hour. If the rehabilitation decreases the average delay per tow by seven hours, with an annual loaded barge volume of 17,282 barges or 1,152 tows assuming 15 barges per tow, the rehabilitation will save 8,035 hours per year. The real importance is that the users of the Illinois River have confidence the lock and dams will be passable.

The reason LaGrange Lock and Dam is going through a major rehabilitation is the maintenance needs of this aging infrastructure have surpassed annual operations and maintenance funding. In other words, a fix-as-fail strategy has been implemented with repairs sometimes requiring days, weeks or months. Additionally, the 1,200-foot-long tows must split and lock through in two operations within the Project’s 600-foot chambers. This procedure doubles and triples lockage times, increases costs and wear to lock machinery, and exposes deckhands to higher accident rates.

River transportation infrastructure projects reduce congestion and improve efficiency, which improves economic returns, reduces traffic related deaths, limits environmental impacts, and reduces government expenditures. One example of helping the environment is public funding aimed at updating and improving the Inland Mississippi Waterways System. Although all transportation modes will have an impact on the environment, it should be noted that floating cargo on a barge has a lower impact than operating a truck as demonstrated by A Modal Comparison of Domestic Freight Transportation Effects on the General Public: 2001–2014 (January 2017), that was conducted by the Texas Transportation Institute’s Center for Port and Waterways at Texas A&M University. The table below demonstrates how emissions per gram traveled one mile vary by transportation mode. If freight can be transported by rail and barge versus truck, emissions will be lower.

Source: Texas Transportation Institute’s Center for Port and Waterways at Texas A&M University

Due to the size of the U.S. transportation freight market, freight movements are often quoted in million ton-miles or billion ton-miles. To transform the data from grams per ton-mile to tons per million ton-miles, it was assumed 907,185 grams per ton times one million.

Source: Texas Transportation Institute’s Center for Port and Waterways at Texas A&M University

The Institute for Water Resources, Navigation and Civil Works Decision Support Center for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported that the Illinois Waterway transported 7.9 billion ton-miles of freight in 2017. The Illinois Waterway is a major river segment for soybean exports due to its proximity to key soybean-producing areas. By multiplying the values in the table Summary of Emissions (Tons per Million Ton-Miles) by 7,900 million ton-miles, the Illinois Waterways Emissions totals were determined and presented in the following table. A potential river failure that would require the barge freight to be shipped by truck would result is an annual increase of 1.2 million tons of emissions.

Source: Texas Transportation Institute’s Center for Port, Army Corps of Engineers and Waterways and Doane Advisory Services

One barge tow of 15 barges transporting 1,500 short tons per barge is equal to 900 semi tractor-trailers or Class 8 trucks each transporting 25 short tons. Transferring the tonnage to the waterways reduces road congestion and lowers the risk of wrecks. In addition, the wear and tear on the roads is greatly reduced, which stretches the pothole fixing budget.  Although all transportation modes will unfortunately have fatalities, it should be noted that the barge safety rate is better than other transportation modes that interact with passenger traffic as demonstrated by A Modal Comparison of Domestic Freight Transportation Effects on the General Public: 2001–2014 (January 2017), that was conducted by the Texas Transportation Institute’s Center for Port and Waterways at Texas A&M University. The table below demonstrates how fatalities vary by transportation mode. The ratio per waterway fatality is each mode’s rate per million ton-miles divided by the inland waterway rate per million ton-miles.


Source: Texas Transportation Institute’s Center for Port and Waterways at Texas A&M University

Assuming the Illinois Waterway transported 7.9 billion ton-miles of freight in 2017 by truck, an additional 3.6 fatalities per year would be expected.

Source: Texas Transportation Institute’s Center for Port and Waterways, Army Corps of Engineers and Doane Advisory Services

Although the dollar value of infrastructure projects is daunting, the benefits to society in terms of economic growth, environmental benefits, and improved safety are tremendous. The U.S. is in a world economy where transportation costs play a major role in the profitability of many businesses. Farming is the greatest example of the importance of infrastructure because farmers rely on low-cost, effective transportation to literally send their crops to the other side of the world. Many variables are not under human control, such as weather and disease outbreaks, but not investing heavily in a major competitive advantage is a self-inflicted wound. The investments being made are a very positive step but much more is required. In short, a ‘failure to fix’ policy should not be an acceptable approach for an asset as valuable as the Inland Mississippi River System.