System taken for granted?
From long experience, UMWA members know that the Mississippi River system and its reliable levels is usually taken for granted until something negative happens. For example, a recent downriver headline asked, “Have You Noticed How Low the Mississippi River Is?”
But the river that people know today is a relatively recent improvement. That’s why Dispatch-Argus writer Marlene Gantt reminded readers in a September column that those stories about people walking or wading across a trickling Mississippi in the Quad Cities area are true. Before the 9-foot system was completed it happened often.
“In July 1910, wading across the Mississippi River was said to be commonplace because of the low water level. All river traffic was suspended. More than river commerce suffered. Fish died in brackish, stagnant water. Dead vegetation drying in the sun often caught on fire and burned, causing a smoke pall.”
Today, while the river system is navigable until freeze-up and city water intakes and recreational users can rely on it, commerce is now being slowed by a creaky, outdated infrastructure.
So much so that The Economist magazine says unreliable locks and traffic delays are, “hurting the reputation of inland waterways as the best way to move bulky things around.”
After remarking on the remarkable carrying capacity of waterborne transport, The Economist says, “Barges emit fewer greenhouses gases, use less fuel and cause far fewer deaths and injuries than lorries or trains. They also tend to be farther from population centres, so that any spills or accidents are likely to cause less damage.”
Writers add that closures at the 239 locks on the U.S. Inland Waterways System have increased sevenfold in the past decade because of deferred maintenance and replacement.
St. LouisToday.com says this year’s good harvest combined with low water levels and system breakdowns have brought the problems home for a lot of shippers.
"Barge freight rates surged to a three-year high on Friday as a key stretch of the Mississippi River fell to near-record lows and as low water and emergency repair work on a 90-year-old lock and dam on the Ohio River delayed dozens of barge tows,” the site said.
Despite all this, however, the website snopes.com says NO, it is not true that the Mississippi is going dry as alleged in a YouTube video.
(Above) When the Corps lowered the pool below St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis for work in early 2008, it provided a graphic demonstration of what river levels would be like without the lock and dam system.
From the Executive Director . . .
(Editor’s note) Executive Director Russ Eichman says the industry has never taken the river system for granted and continues to push for funding to maintain and improve it. Last year a required report to Congress from the Inland Waterway Users Board called attention to the lack of interest in the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program (NESP). Here’s Eichman’s take on:
One river system, four ways to measure value
In 2007, Congress declared its commitment to modernizing the critical Upper Mississippi River System and restoring its ecosystem by authorizing the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program, an unprecedented, dual-purpose authority allowing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to integrate management of the UMRS navigation system and ecosystem. The NESP program, authorized $1.9 billion for new 1,200-foot locks and $1.7 billion for a 15-year ecosystem restoration program, plus $20.42 million annually for monitoring.
As a reminder, NESP includes construction of seven 1,200-foot locks at the most congested locations: Lock and Dams 20, 21, 22, 24, and 25 on the Upper Mississippi River and La Grange and Peoria on the Illinois Waterway.
Interestingly, a June 2012 Institute for Water Resources report on U.S. Port and Inland Waterway Modernization found that the Upper Mississippi River – Illinois Waterway navigation system has adequate capacity through 2020, but will require maintenance of existing capacity.
Despite that encouraging finding, facts reveal that the System is experiencing some of the longest lockage delays in the country due to single, undersized 600-foot locks trying to accommodate 1,200-foot tows and unexpected downtime for repair of aged gates and machinery. Congress, however, has yet to appropriate funds to the NESP program, even as current lock delays average 4-5 hours and lack of rehabilitation funding increases the risk of more failures and unanticipated closures.
In an effort to elevate the level of congressional attention and raise public awareness of the value of NESP projects, several other reports have been published highlighting the value of that program.
Increased grain demand and new Panama Canal
The Rock Island District, reporting on the previously referenced June 2012 Institute for Water Resources report, also stated that although the UMR-IWW tonnage has decreased over the last decade, this trend is expected to reverse due to increased demand for grain exports and enlargement of the Panama Canal. Under the latter, inland navigation is estimated to save the economy $23.74 per ton compared to overland transport, according to the Planning Center for Expertise for Inland Navigation, January 2012.
The estimated savings for users of the UMR-IWW based on 2010 tonnage values would be $1.4 billion for the UMR and $0.86 billion for the IWW, respectively, for a total of $2.26 billion. Savings that would be passed back to shippers and the environment in the form of lower transportation costs and less harmful green-house gasses.
Enlarging base of beneficiaries
The second study of our review was released this past August and discussed in this column last month. Prepared for the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, and corn, soybean and chemical interests, it redefined navigation and non-navigation beneficiaries located in the 22 counties along the Illinois Waterway. In total 1.7 million jobs were identified producing $102 billion in wages.
The report also identified five improvement options to the Waterway, including the construction of new 1200-foot structures and/or rehabilitation of all locks instead of upgrades. Cost savings to shippers and the economy were estimated to range from $51.56 million to $137.97 million depending on option.
Portions of the cost savings are annualized wages and increased employment; other portions are year-related based upon volume and freight rates of commodity shipped. The take-away is that this study expressed the value of the waterway as cost savings to users of the Illinois Waterway System as a result of infrastructure improvements, as opposed to lower costs due to enlargement of the Panama Canal as revealed in the above COE data. Both are accurate, but from a different perspective.
Impact of long term lock closure
The third study of our comparison is an analysis of the economic impacts on the Upper Mississippi River-Illinois Waterway and U.S. corn and soybean stakeholders, if long-duration disruptions were to occur because of lock closures for major unanticipated repairs.
This report was conducted by the University of Tennessee under contract with U.S. Department of Agriculture and analyzes hypothetical lock closures at Mississippi River Lock 25 and Illinois River La Grange Lock, since these two locks are the only two considered for improvement under NESP and because they are good representatives of the other locks used on the UMR-IWW.
This study analyzed L&D 25 and the La Grange lock separately using potential grain markets in the next decade, using two closure times: (1) the fall harvest season and (2) the entire marketing year of 2024/2025.
Using the worst possible scenario for both locks (full season closure with rail rates increasing by 15 percent), this study found that the closure of Lock 25 would result in a reduction of more than 7,000 jobs, $1.3 billion in labor income and a $ 2.4 billion decrease in economic activity.
Similarly, closure of La Grange would result in a loss of 5,500 jobs, $900 million in employment income and $1.8 billion loss in total industry output.
This U.S. Department of Agriculture study expresses waterway value as the combined UMR-IWW system in terms of job and wage loss and reduced total industry output.
A healthy river supports economic growth
The fourth and final study is an on-going effort by the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association. A recent draft report explores the multiple benefits from a healthy river and how investments in infrastructure for navigation, flood risk management and water supply/energy must consider how these uses impact ecosystems. It also discusses the flip side of that same coin: The Upper Mississippi River's ecosystem is the foundation for its many economic benefits.
The nine economic sectors profiled by the report and their regional revenue include Manufacturing ($282.5 billion), Tourism ($20.6 billion), Agriculture ($25 billion), Energy Production ($8 billion), Mineral Extraction ($4.8 billion), Outdoor Recreation ($4 billion), Commercial Navigation ($673 million), Water Supply ($320 million) and Commercial Harvest ($21.7 million), totaling $349 billion over the 133 counties flanking the UMR in the five states from the headwaters in Minnesota to Cairo, Illinois.
This study is being developed in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Division of Economics (to provide analytical support), the UMRBA, the Nature Conservancy, and the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative. This UMR partnership plans to expand its analysis to include the Illinois River as well as the economic value that river provides. The final report is expected to be available in 2017. This initial study focuses on the value-added of the nine waterway sectors profiled in the draft report.
By any measure the above studies highlight the economic advantages of an efficient and well maintained lock and dam system. While contemporary legislative trends focus on infrastructure projects for their recreational and aesthetic values, transportation, economic and ecosystem needs continue to be the foundation which supports all other river-dependent uses.
The challenge to lawmakers and the Corps of Engineers is to implement current NESP legislation so that selected projects are being carried out at a “comparable rate”, while honoring a WRDA 2007 ranking system which gives greater weight to projects that restore natural river processes.
Unfortunately, nothing will happen until Congress appropriates NESP funding.
Disclaimer: Thoughts and opinions express in this column are those of its author and not necessarily of the Upper Mississippi Waterway Association or its members.
Other Items of Interest...
* The Inland Waterway System and its needs were among the topics raised by producer-members of CHS Inc., when they met with members of Congress this summer. The long-time UMWA member organization sends a delegation to Washington D.C. each year to advocate for agriculture.
* A blogger on the Southeast Missourian website says the area around Cape Girardeau, Mo., needs more exits for recreational boaters. The blog says the area is, “missing the boat” because its stretch of the Mississippi is, “the sole connecting link between the Great Lakes and Gulf Coast regions” and lots of recreational boat traffic passes by without stopping and spending.
* The unique heavy lift capacity of water transportation was graphically demonstrated recently when Weeks Marine moved four new sand barges and a towboat to New York. The company stacked the barges and the towboat to make transportation more efficient, but also turned a lot of heads.
* Celebrating its bicentennial, the Erie Canal says it is still an, “agent for change” even though it’s designated a National Historic Landmark. The canal pumps $6.2 billion in annual dollars from non-tourism business and supports more than 26,000 jobs. Syracuse, New York, on the canal recently hosted the World Canals Conference.
* The huge NeoPanamax vessels continue to come through the enlarged Panama Canal. The canal recently counted its 2000th Neopanamax transit.