The sorry state of the United State’s inland waterways system is well known, but solutions to fixing it seem, at times, elusive.

“Folks cross railroads, they travel roads and see rusty bridges, they’re asking ‘Where’s our DOT funding for this?’ But they’re not calling and asking ‘Where’s our energy and water funding to maintain our rivers?’” said Thomas Heinhold, the Army Corps of Engineer’s Rock Island District deputy chief of operations.

Heinhold was part of a barge and lock and dam tour Aug. 4 on the Mississippi River near Davenport, Iowa.

Maintenance, repairs and improvements to the lock system come primarily from the federal budget.

The Rock Island District includes 20 locks. Heinhold said to keep the system intact, they should be doing a major rehabilitation on at least one lock every year, but because of lack of funding, the last rehab took place in 2005. The next one is planned for 2020 on the Illinois River.

“We are way behind on major rehabilitation,” he said. “The risk of a catastrophic failure on this one-lane highway is getting greater every year. On the highway, if a bridge is out, there’s a detour. On this system, that’s not an option.”

In 2007 Congress approved the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program which was meant to address some of these funding issues. But, according to Heinhold, no additional funding has been provided a decade after it was created.

If NESP had been implemented, 1,200-foot locks would be the standard on the Mississippi.

“We are prepared to tackle that challenge,” Heinhold said. “Hopefully that funding comes at some point in the near future.”

Another funding stream for repairs isthe Inland Waterways Trust Fund. IWTF money comes through a 29 cent tax on fuel used by towboats. Funds match federal dollars, on approved rehabilitation projects.

Emergency repairs

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported emergency repairs to a gate at a lock near St. Louis caused a major Mississippi River traffic jam last month. Dozens of barges were delayed due to a cracked gate at the Melvin Price Lock and Dam at Alton, Ill. Barge traffic was closed or limited Aug. 30 through Sept. 3. An Army Corps of Engineers spokesperson said the cracks were discovered during a routine inspection.

“[Some of these locks] are falling apart right before our eyes,” said Marty Hettle, chairman of the Inland Waterways User Board. “It’s not all the [Army Corps of Engineers’] fault. These guys are just being good soldiers and doing what their bosses tell them and what the laws, written by Congress, bind them to. If things were different and they had sufficient funding, I’m sure we wouldn’t be looking at this backlog.”

Delays and closures can result in financial losses to farmers and companies that rely on the barge’s cargo making it downstream in a timely manner.

Additional delays happen because the locks themselves are too small for modern barge traffic.

Heinhold explained a towboat usually transports 15 barges, totaling about 1,200 feet of length. But, the locks in this portion of the country were mostly built for the barge traffic of the 1930s, and are only 600 feet long. Because of this, it can be a slow process getting all 15 barges through the lock.

“That causes delays and additional risk in the system,” Heinhold said. “And, basically, limits and constrains the capacity of the system as well.”

Federal support

“I’ve been hearing over the last five or six years, since I got into politics, about this issue,” said Iowa Congressman Rob Blum, who attended the Aug. 4 tour.

“This system on the river is very important to getting our corn and soybeans down to the port in New Orleans. If a lock went down here, it would be catastrophic. I don’t think the average person understands how much traffic comes down this river.”

Blum, a Republican, and Democrats Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth and Iowa Congressman Dave Loebsack, said they are aware of the problems with the system.

“We just can’t get [our commodities] down the Mississippi fast enough to be competitive when you have competitors coming from Brazil that’s got so much government funding behind them,” said Duckworth.

“That’s where I come in, my colleagues … come in, finding a way to work it out in a bipartisan way to solve the issues. Bottom line, it’s about time we made serious investments in our nation’s interstate commerce system.”

Blum offered a path to additional funding through establishing a lock user fee.

“The president wants to leverage over a trillion dollars for infrastructure. One of the ways to do that, a beautiful way to do that, is through user fees,” he said, having companies pay a fee — like a toll road — to use locks along the river.

“They’d be happy to pay it, especially if the locks were modernized and made twice as long. It’s a win-win.”

Corey Munson writes for Illinois Farmer Today, a Lee Enterprises sister publication of The Southern.