Mississippi lock upgrade called critical

Corn growers say now is the time

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

DUBUQUE, Iowa -- It's time to improve the lock and dam system on the Upper Mississippi now, 160 farmers were told last week during a barge trip on the Mississippi River.

The trip was sponsored by the Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin Corn Growers Associations and the Midwest Area River Coalition, a group of farmers, shippers and manufacturers.


The tow that left from Dubuque "locked through'' Lock 11, north of town. In operation since 1937, Lock 11 is one of only two locks that haven't been renovated since then.

"There are 350 million bushels of corn that go through Lock 11 every year,'' said Arlington farmer Tim Burrack. "By the time we get to St. Louis, it's about 1 billion bushels. It's a remarkable system, but it's old and needs to be updated.''

Burrack urged corn growers to get their congressional representatives on board to support lock renovation.

"We're in a war,'' Burrack said. "Will we upgrade the locks or will we allow them to be maintained as they are and do nothing for the future of U.S. agriculture?''

MARC 2000 wants to expand five locks on the Upper Mississippi and two on the Illinois River from 600 to 1,200 feet. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is studying the feasibility of the expansion. The study was restructured after investigators confirmed a whistleblower's claim that the Corps had slanted research to reach a desired result.

Environmental groups want thorough consideration to be given to alternatives that could speed up shipping, but would be less damaging to the river.

Elliott Stefanik, Army Corps of Engineers biologist, said that the restructured navigation study gives equal consideration to the ecosystem and economic development.

A typical 15 barge tow must go through the 600-foot locks in two sections, which takes more than two hours, said Bill Gretten, chief of the Army Corps of Engineers Locks and Dam Section on the Upper Mississippi River Project. All 15 barges fit in a 1,200-foot lock, cutting time in half.


Paul Rohde, vice president of the MARC 2000, asked barge riders to notice how quietly it moves through the river.

"I can't think of a quieter way to move 23 tons,'' Rohde said. "Shipping by barge is safer, quieter and causes less pollution than rail or trucks."

The $1.2 billion price tag to improve the lock and dam system will be spread over 10 years to 15 years, Rohde said. Commercial river navigation pays 20 cents per gallon in fuel taxes to a trust fund that will cover half the cost of the improvements.

"There's diverse interests -- environmental and economic -- but we don't see this as an either or situation," Rohde said.

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