In Praise of the Lock and Dam System

Inland Port Magazine
2013 Issue I
By Dennis Wilmsmeyer, IRPT President

Unfortunately, it seems in life that we sometimes are fighting an uphill battle. In the river industry, we are fight­ing that uphill battle every day.

We all know the cost effectiveness of barges and that a 15-barge tow carries the same amount of product as 225 rail cars or nearly 1,000 trucks in a far safer and less polluting manner. We certainly have the safest, most cost-effective and least polluting transportation mode, and we proudly share that with others.

Why, then, is it so darn difficult to get any money directed toward maintaining or upgrading our locks and dams?
Of all the articles written about the 2012 drought and the resulting low water in the Middle Mississippi River, I have yet to find one extolling the virtues of how the Lock and Dam System on the Upper Mis­sissippi River saved the day.

And it certainly did.

The general public forgets that the whole reason the Lock and Dam System was constructed between St. Louis and Minneapolis was to create the 9-foot navigation channel to allow year-round movement of goods via water. It took "low water conditions" out of the equation that grounded boats for weeks or months waiting for rains or snow melt. It cre­ated a viable and reliable transportation system. That which Congress authorized in the 1930s and the Corps constructed over the next 15-20 years was an incred­ible feat. Trying to replicate it today isn't even within our realm of imagination: A total of 28-plus new locks and dams allowing navigation to continue on the Upper Mississippi River during the worst of droughts.

The unintended recipient of the system this time was the Middle Mississippi, from St. Louis (just below the last lock) to Cairo, IL, at the mouth of the Ohio River. The Lock and Dam System, because of its design for holding back water, slowly metered out water to the Middle Missis­sippi River all last summer. Similar to a slow-draining bathtub, the locks and dams made the Middle Mississippi River navigable.

Without them, and without exaggera­tion, a completely free-flowing river would have been shut down from Minneapolis to Cairo back in August.

Today, there is a 17-foot difference in the height of the water north of Locks #27 (the last lock on the river) as op­posed to the free-flowing River on the other side of it.

Foresight decades ago by the Corps of Engineers got us here. Determination and resolve by the river industry will be necessary to ensure our locks and dams are maintained and our transportation system remains viable and reliable for decades to come. We must continue our uphill fight.