Iowa river traffic relies on aging lock and dam system
DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) — In the final week of April, crews discovered cracks in the anchorage at Lock and Dam No. 11 in Dubuque.
The finding prompted an immediate emergency closure of the structure and effectively halted traffic up and down the Mississippi River for 24 hours.
By the time the lock reopened, boats were lined up for 7 miles.
But lockmaster Gary Kilburg points out that the situation could have been much worse.
He noted that maintenance crews were prepping for an upcoming miter gate replacement and, thus, were on site when the structural problems were discovered.
“We were very fortunate that they discovered this when the maintenance crews were already here,” he said. “Luck was on our side. If they hadn’t been here, it could’ve been a weeklong shutdown.”
Still, it served as a stark reminder of the ripple effect that even a brief closure can have on river traffic. It also again focused attention on the aging lock-and-dam system — and the potentially crippling impact a major problem could have.
“In the locking business, there is no second option,” Kilburg said. “It’s not like the highway, where the road shuts down and you can take another bridge. With the lock-and-dam system, there is no detour.”
The Telegraph Herald reports that the lock-and-dam structures in Dubuque, Bellevue and Guttenberg, Iowa, were completed in the late 1930s. All three have stood for 80 years, despite being designed with only a 50-year life expectancy.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has kept the system humming along through rigorous maintenance. However, there is no plan in place for the replacement of the structures — which increasingly is raising concerns.
“We’re operating on borrowed time now, and we shouldn’t push our luck,” said U.S. Rep. Rod Blum, R-Iowa. “I know these are big, expensive projects, but eventually, we have to be thinking about replacing them and building brand new locks.”
There are 37 lock-and-dam sites located on 1,200 miles of river in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin.
The purpose of the system on the upper Mississippi is frequently misunderstood, Kilburg said.
“A lot of people think it is for flood control, but that is not the case,” he said.
Rather, the purpose is to ensure a channel with the necessary depth to allow the safe passage of barge traffic.
The U.S. Congress in 1930 approved the Rivers and Harbors Act. It included the construction of locks and dams on the upper Mississippi that ensure that the river channel remains at least nine feet deep.
Barges, therefore, are assured they will not run aground.
Eight decades after construction of the structures, the Army Corps of Engineers makes little attempt to sugarcoat the realities confronting the system.
In its most recent annual report, the Corps notes that maintenance needs “have surpassed annual operations and maintenance funding.” The report states that limited funding has “adversely affected reliability” and resulted in a “fix-as-fail” strategy.
Tom Heinold is chief of operations for the Rock Island District of the Corps. The district includes 12 lock-and-dam structures on the Mississippi and multiple structures on the Illinois waterway that connects the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan.
He emphasized that there are three things necessary to sustain the system — routine maintenance, major maintenance and rehabilitation, and major capital reinvestment.
Heinold said the agency currently has adequate funding to perform routine maintenance and repairs, but it is well behind schedule when it comes to conducting the major rehabilitation needed.
“If you think of it like a car, the routine maintenance is like changing the oil,” he said. “The major maintenance and rehabilitation is when the car is near the end of its life, and you need to overhaul the engine to keep it going. We are way behind on that type of maintenance due to funding.”
Given the age of the system, Heinold said he believes the Corps should be conducting major rehabilitation on one of the system’s locks four out of every five years.
However, the latest major rehab effort in his district occurred in the mid-2000s at Lock and Dam No. 11.
The Corps this year received funding for a major rehabilitation to the La Grange Lock and Dam on the Illinois River, marking the first time in about a dozen years such a project was approved.
The final component of sustaining the system — major capital reinvestment — is not just underfunded. It is unfunded.
The Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program was approved in 2007 as a means for bringing about long-term navigation improvements and ecological restoration on the Upper Mississippi. Heinold said the program has received no funding since it was adopted, however.
Blum credits the Army Corps of Engineers for doing “an amazing job” maintaining the aging locks and dams, noting that their work has allowed the structures to outlive their life expectancy by three decades.
Sooner rather than later, however, Blum believes that the replacement of the structures is needed. These new locks should be “modernized” by making them twice as long as the existing ones, he added.
The lock in Dubuque currently stretches just 600 feet, large enough to accommodate nine barges at once — three long by three wide.
The “tows” — a collection of barges — that travel down the Mississippi often have more than a dozen barges. Crews are forced to split the tow in half to move through the lock. By the time the second group of barges passes through, the entire process can take up to 90 minutes.
But while most can agree on the need for new locks and dams, the funding picture remains unclear.
In February, President Donald Trump unveiled a $1.5 trillion plan to update the nation’s infrastructure. The proposal included $200 billion in federal funding, with local and state government picking up the rest of the cost.
But the plan has stalled since the announcement, and federal officials largely agree that it will not be considered until after the November midterm elections.
U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, a Republican from North Carolina, discussed the fate of the infrastructure bill during a recent visit to Dubuque.
“I see that picking up steam at some point in November and hopefully getting reintroduced in January or February,” said Meadows, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Although he supports replacing the locks, Blum said it must be done without “adding to our deficit.”
“For all the infrastructure spending that is done, we need to offset it somewhere else or find a way to pay for it,” he said.
Blum said that implementing “user fees or tolls” for those using the river could be one way to offset the costs.
Blum’s opponent in the upcoming election for Iowa’s First Congressional District, Iowa Rep. Abby Finkenauer, D-Dubuque, also believes that major investments must be made in the upper Mississippi’s infrastructure.
“We need to listen to the Army Corps of Engineers and fund what needs to get done. ... It is not enough to keep kicking the can down the road,” Finkenauer said.
U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst said she is keeping a close eye on the condition of locks and dams.
The Iowa Republican said she previously had been hopeful that the system’s modernization would be part of an infrastructure bill spearheaded by the president. With that bill facing roadblocks, she believes that funding for locks and dams might have to take other forms.
“What we may have to do is break that into smaller packages and focus on locks and dams, roads and bridges, rural broadband initiatives,” she said.
Escalating concerns about the river’s infrastructure come at a time when river transportation is on the rise.
In 2016, more than 18.9 million tons of commodities passed through Lock and Dam No. 11 in Dubuque. That marked a
28 percent increase over the previous year and the highest tonnage at Dubuque since 2002.
About 11.4 million tons of food and farm products moved through, accounting for more than 60 percent of the total. Chemicals and related products were the second-largest category, with about 2.8 million tons. That was followed by crude materials (1.7 million tons), coal (1.5 million tons) and primary manufactured goods (1.3 million tons).
In 2016, Lock and Dam No. 10 in Guttenberg had about the same total volume of commodities move through as Dubuque, while Lock and Dam No. 12 in Bellevue had 20.8 million tons pass through. In each case, the tonnage marked the highest total in 14 years.
Official reports for last year have not been released by the Army Corps, but public affairs specialist Samantha Heilig said the 2017 total for Lock and Dam No. 11 was
18.8 million tons and for No. 12, 20.5 million, indicating that the 2016 surge was not an anomaly.
John Mueller, lockmaster at Lock and Dam No. 12 in Bellevue, cited a couple main factors for the increasing river traffic.
“I think the expansion of the Panama Canal, which has allowed larger ocean-going vessels to go through, has made a difference,” he said. “Parts of the Mississippi being dredged has also allowed larger ships to go further inland and bring more cargo downriver.”
From farming and grocery delivery, to tow services and tourism, the river’s economic impact is immense.
Nicolas Hockenberry, director of Jackson County (Iowa) Economic Alliance, said there are multiple companies that assist barges as they pull into area locks.
Riverview Boat Store in Bellevue is a grocery vendor that delivers products to barges passing through town. The company was founded in 1998 with just two employees and now has 30 workers, according to its website.
Hockenberry emphasized that the sheer size of the barges makes them the most economical option for transporting materials.
According to the Iowa Department of Transportation, it would take 16 rail cars or 70 large semi-tractor trailers to carry the volume of freight that can be moved on a single barge. One 15-barge tow can carry as much material as 240 rail cars or 1,050 semis.
These comparisons paint a stark portrait of what would occur in the event of a sustained river closure, Hockenberry said. Companies likely would turn to the nation’s highway system, putting a detrimental strain on roads in the process.
″(A failure of the lock-and-dam system) would have some lasting impacts on our infrastructure,” Hockenberry said. “The cost the county and state would incur would be substantial and something that was not planned for.”
IEI Barge Services, located just off Barge Terminal Road in East Dubuque, Illinois, serves as an access point for dozens of customers using the river to transport products.
Owned by Alliant Energy, the facility employs 17 people and operates five days per week. During the busy seasons — the spring and fall — this can increase to six or seven days per week.
Workers there load, unload and store dry-bulk commodities for barge, rail and truck traffic, according to General Manager Joe Bitter.
At IEI, grain is taken from trucks and rail cars and placed upon a conveyer belt. The conveyer belt carries the grain through a spout that empties the product onto barges waiting below.
Fertilizer, road salt and feed additives are among the products taken off of barges. These items can be placed in storage or moved into trucks or rail cars.
Bitter acknowledged that the recent issues with the nearby lock and dam have been a frequent source of concern for him and his employees.
“I think it really put a laser focus on it,” he said. “It reminded us of our reliance on the river and made us stop to think about whether we are at risk. ... It is well-documented that lock-and-dam structures are not built for the number of years we have used them and the opportunity is there for problems.”
Area farmers also are acutely aware of the river’s importance.
Peter Winch, president of Grant County (Wisconsin) Farm Bureau, said it is difficult to overstate the significance of the Mississippi.
“The river system opens up trade to the world,” he said. “Without it, you are working only in local markets.”
Keith Rahe, president and CEO of Travel Dubuque, emphasized that the river also has a noteworthy tourism impact.
The Riverboat Twilight, based in LeClaire, Iowa, and the Celebration Belle, of Moline, Illinois, frequently pass through lock-and-dam structures before stopping in Dubuque. Their passengers dine, drink and often spend the night in the city.
Other boats travel from St. Louis to the Twin Cities in Minnesota and pay a visit to Dubuque along the way.
“The ability for these boats to travel the river and stop in Dubuque, that is huge for us,” Rahe said. “It is a big part of our economy and our identity.”
At all three locks and dams in the tri-state area, maintenance is a must.
Four new miter gates were installed this spring at Lock and Dam No. 11, according to Heilig.
New relief walls will be installed this winter when the lock is dewatered. The replacement of tainter gate chains is slated to take place in 2019.
At Lock and Dam No. 12 in Bellevue, four new miter gates are scheduled for installation in October. There will be four, 12-hour closures to complete the work, Heilig said.
Sam Mathiowetz, lockmaster at Lock and Dam No. 10 in Guttenberg, said crews replaced damaged concrete and wall armor at the structure this winter, after a tow hit it the previous year.
The next major project in Guttenberg will be the replacement of four miter gates in the lock.
“We’re waiting on an exact date for that, but we have been told it will be done within the next five years,” he said.
Kilburg, the lockmaster in Dubuque, predicts there will continue to be problems that must be addressed when they arise.
However, he acknowledged that this approach can only keep the structures working for so long.
“Even with the best maintenance program in the world, if you put 80 or 100 years on something, eventually it just needs to be replaced,” he said.
Information from: Telegraph Herald, http://www.thonline.com