(Posted Fri. Sep 21st, 2012)

Sept. 21: Yesterday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing on reauthorization of the Water Resources and Development Act.  Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Ranking Member Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) expressed support for moving a WRDA bill to the Senate floor during the lame duck session of Congress.  Members of the Committee expressed support for passing a bill as it authorizes a variety projects nationwide.  The hearing could not have been more timely given the events unfolding in the nation’s heartland.


Earlier in the week, barge traffic on the Mississippi River ground to a halt as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed Lock 27, located near Granite City, Ill., for emergency repairs. The closure, which affected one of the busiest locks on the Mississippi, caused U.S. grain exports to grind to a halt. The National Corn Growers Association, who has conducted sustained efforts to restore the outdated locks and dams systems on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, urges Congress to consider the potential impact such closures will have upon the U.S. economy in the coming years and to take action to repair the crumbling infrastructure essential to our nation’s inland navigation system.


“Our inland waterway system plays a crucial role in the nation’s economy, and we must continue to publicly explain why funding improvements are critical to maintaining our industry’s viability,” said NCGA President Garry Niemeyer.  “Repairing and modernizing our lock and dam system would benefit our nation as a whole, creating jobs and generating shipping efficiencies.”


The closure, which lasted from Saturday, September 15 until early Thursday morning, created a massive backup on this important channel with 63 vessels towing 455 barges waiting to pass at the lock’s reopening. At that time, Lt. Colin Fogarty of the U.S. Coast Guard estimated it would take three days for the flow of traffic on the river to return to normal.


Delays like the one at Lock 27 have important economic ramifications as the country’s inland waterways system moves more than a billion tons of domestic commerce, valued at $300 billion, every year. In this instance, the delays were estimated to result in some $2.5 million to $3 million in lost revenue each day that traffic was delayed. The agricultural sector in particular feels the brunt of Mississippi River closures as 60 percent of all grain exports are shipped via this channel.


With the lock system approaching 80 years old, much of the infrastructure has already more than exceeded its life expectancy. As the use of locks and dams extends even further than originally intended, the frequency at which disruptions occur will undoubtedly increase.


The system’s age offers additional complications in that it cannot accommodate modern barging practices even when running, further complicating shipping. Today, barge tows can actually extend to nearly twice the length of many locks, thus forcing barges to use the dangerous, time-consuming double-locking procedure.