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Aging Mississippi Locks And Dams Still Await Federal Funding

Army Corps of Engineers Rock Island District
The Army Corps of Engineers says it needs dedicated federal funding to replace an aging system of locks and dams on the Mississippi River, a key shipping network and regional economic driver.

Congress is allocating billions of dollars to expand the work of the Army Corps of Engineers, as past of a larger funding package that includes the Departments of Defense, Labor, and Health and Human Services. But adequate funding to replace the aging locks and dams on the Mississippi River is not part of the deal. 

Many of the locks and dams on the Mississippi River are 80 years old, but were only designed to last 50. Millions of tons of freight, including corn and soybeans destined for export, flow through the aging system on barges, along with tourists and passengers.

The Army Corps of Engineers works to patch the system as it breaks. But officials say it’s past time to replace it. Colonel Steven Sattinger oversees the Corps' Rock Island District

"There's a lot of deferred maintenance," Sattinger said. "They do occasionally...pieces break, machinery breaks. But we have really great crews in the district who are out there 24/7 fixing it and keeping them open. The longer you defer maintenance though, the more likely that someday it’ll fail in a way that we didn’t foresee.”

He says dam failures could hamstring the shipping economy and local communities that depend on it.

“Unfortunately here in the Upper Mississippi River, there’s no bypasses. If one of our locks and dams fails, it has to be closed to traffic. The traffic would have to go on the land," Sattinger said. "There are no additional locks or dams or water routes to move that freight otherwise.”

A 2017 study from the Mid-America Freight Coalition estimates moving freight over land due to a lock and dam failure could mean $283 million dollars in added trucking costs, $28 million in damage to roads, and add an additional 159 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

But it's still up to the Corps, local leaders, and industry advocates to mobilize support in Washington D.C. for what officials say is a multi-billion dollar construction project. The White House released a written statement on the passage of the funding plan, saying President Donald Trump "looks forward to signing the legislation," but believes the country must show "fiscal restraint."

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter