Upper Mississippi’s lock-and-dam decision dilemma
The splash must have been terrific at the Markland locks and dam site on the Ohio River near Warsaw, Ky. On Sept. 27, 2009, a multi-ton iron gate leaf on a main chamber lock collapsed into the river due to a faulty solenoid. You might say it fell off its hinges. The chamber on the 1,200'-long lock had to be closed until February 2010. For grain merchants further up the Ohio, the 14-hour barge delays couldn’t help but negatively affect the basis.
With construction completed in 1959, the Markland locks are representative of many on the Upper Mississippi River and its tributaries. With a life expectancy of 50 years, 50% of the 191
commercially active locks in the U.S. are operating on borrowed time without regularly scheduled maintenance.
The aging river infrastructure and an expected increase in barge river traffic from future grain exports has some commodity and river industry groups pushing for $2.2 billion in funding for immediate construction of new lock and dam projects. Not everyone thinks this is the solution for efficient river traffic or a wise use of taxpayer money. And can farmers really expect a tsunami of future grain exports that will drive the need for more efficiency on the inland waterways?
Worth the cost. As the steward of our inland waterways, the Army Corps of Engineers proposed in 2004 to address safety, navigation and costly inefficiencies in the barge river traffic system. The proposal, the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program (NESP), promotes the expansion of seven key locks and dams—five on the Upper Mississippi and two on the Illinois River. The taxpayer’s $2.2 billion payout for this project doesn’t include monies for future maintenance on the new construction.
Currently, any 600' lock channel forces a 15-barge tow that is 1,200' long to be decoupled so that the lock can take half of the barge tow down to the river level below the dam. The decoupling, lock draining, refilling, recoupling to the remaining barge tow, draining and final recoupling of the two barge tows takes more than twice as long as it would to get through a 1,200' lock. This costs farmers and grain shippers money, particularly if the river traffic is busy.
What does it cost to operate a barge on the Mississippi? "Barge costs are now about $400 per day and towboat costs are upward of $6,000 per day and rising," says Larry Daily, president of Alter
Logistics in Bettendorf, Iowa. "Higher fuel costs are also a big impact."
A congressional research report has found that delays are greatest at the 600' locks Nos. 20 through 25, just north of St. Louis. During a 10-year period, delays averaged 3.4 hours per tow. "A 10% increase in delay at any given lock was estimated to increase barge rates by 0.16% to 0.59%," the report said.
What does this mean to farmers? "Barge rates account for 10% to 12% of changes in farm and export prices for corn and about 4% of changes in soybean prices," the report found.
Since 2000, lock and dam delays are becoming more common. David Grier, navigation program manager for the Corps, sees two trends emerging. In a report that addresses the declining
reliability of the locks, he says, "Scheduled maintenance and repairs are occurring more often, at more locations and are taking longer to complete; and unscheduled closures due to failure of a lock component, or some other incident, are occurring more often, at more locations, and are likewise taking longer to fix."
Not only are shippers questioning future reliability, "our [current funding] system doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence for major expenditures [for new large construction projects]," adds Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition.
Plenty of cost to go around. Delays cut into the overall volume shipped, which directly cuts into potential profit. Throw floods and low water levels into the mix, further affecting the volume shipped, and it is no surprise that river navigation companies want to spend money on controllable efficiency factors such as lock extensions on the busiest areas on the Upper Mississippi.
- March 2012