A Publication of WTVP

We have a vital natural resource in our community—one which many of us take for granted: the Illinois River.

As moisture evaporated in our soils last summer and the drought of 2012 took a strong foothold in the Midwest, crops withered and suffered. The epicenter of the hot weather took place in July, creating the base for what turned out to be some real concern with navigation on our Mississippi River system. Even as rains and cooler weather became more prevalent in August, the hot July had sapped so much moisture out of the soil profile that every drop of rain that fell was quickly absorbed. That’s great in preventing soil erosion, as there was not any water runoff to carry soil particles away into the river, but we need that runoff to keep our streams and rivers flowing and to keep water levels high enough for river transportation to be viable.

Last November and December, the river transportation discussion centered on an area between St. Louis and Cairo, a zone with low water levels that were impacting river transportation. Under normal circumstances, the draft of a barge (the length of a barge beneath the water’s surface) is nine feet for maximum efficiency. A full barge can hold 52,000 bushels of grain, but requires a nine-foot draft to do it. As the river dropped to critical levels last fall, barges were forced to operate with a shortened eight-foot draft and could only be loaded with 42,000 bushels. Just a one-foot difference in the length of a barge’s draft equated to 10,000 fewer bushels!

In December, the Army Corps of Engineers was busy breaking up the rock on the bottom of the Illinois River south of St. Louis and dredging it out to maintain some light river traffic. With lighter loads on the barges, expenses began to creep higher, and grain exports to other countries suffered as our river systems’ competitive advantage grew less and less. This year, higher transportation costs and lower yields due to the drought have taken a heavy toll on our exports. It’s a market that our economy needs to regain, which is doable if we have good yields this fall.

As mentioned earlier, one barge will hold 52,000 bushels of grain. A tow is 15 barges connected together, which is normal traffic on the Illinois River. If you look along the riverfront in Peoria or Pekin, you will eventually see a tow of barges passing by. Most likely, it will be three barges wide and five long. If it’s hauling grain, there will be more than 700,000 bushels within that one tow. Compare this to a jumbo hopper railcar, which holds 3,500 bushels, or a semi truck, which can haul about 900 bushels. River transportation is quiet, it does not slow you down on your way to work, and it is very efficient.

So, if water levels are normal in our rivers, does that equate to a rosy scenario for barge traffic on the Illinois River? Not exactly. There are lock and dam structures on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers which help maintain higher water levels. Our existing lock and dams were constructed in the 1930s, meaning they’ve lasted nearly 80 years. How much more can we expect out of them?

Our two Illinois senators representing us in Washington DC, Sen. Dick Durbin and Sen. Mark Kirk, along with our two congressional representatives, Congresswoman Cheri Bustos and Congressman Aaron Schock, whose districts include Peoria County, are all in support of waterway infrastructure improvements. How to fund new river infrastructure is at the center of discussions, as it has been for two decades. Legislation has been brought forth that would shift sharing the repairs and upgrades to a public-private partnership. Maybe this will get the ball rolling for some much-needed improvements in our lock and dam system.

So, just what happened to the river levels? That problem was fixed, and it was a very simple and cost-effective solution: it rained! If only it was that simple to fix our lock and dam structures… iBi