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.