A Publication of WTVP

Upgrading the 1930s lock and dam system on the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers has been at the forefront of agriculture for years. Both the House and Senate have passed national legislation that paves the way for seven lock upgrades to occur. This legislation was to go before Conference Committees in mid-September, and Congress was scheduled to adjourn on September 29 and reconvene after the elections.

Two of the locks to be upgraded from 600 feet to 1,200 feet in length are located on the Illinois River, and five are on the Mississippi. The two on the Illinois are at Peoria (south of the Shade Lohman Bridge on Interstate 474) and LaGrange (south of Beardstown). The five locks on the Mississippi River are between Keokuk, Iowa, and St. Louis (Locks 20–24).

The legislation is the Water Resources Development Act of 2006, which authorizes nearly $1.5 billion for construction of the seven new locks. Half of the construction on the extensions will be paid by taxpayers, and the other half by the Inland Waterway Trust Fund. The river industry has been contributing to the fund since the 1980s, and a national industry fuel tax of 20 cents per gallon is also directed to the fund. The Water Resources Development Act also authorizes significant environmental restoration along the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. The construction would be done over a 15-year time period, and the new 1,200-foot locks would quickly and efficiently move grain shipments, construction materials, coal, and other freight on river barge tows.

That’s efficiency—one 15—barge tow will transport 750,000 bushels of grain. If you’re at the riverfront and you see a barge tow pass by, they’ll usually be three barges wide and five barges in length. Loaded with grain, this barge tow is moving the same amount of grain as nearly 900 semitrailer trucks.

Currently, the barge tows have to break apart to pass through the 600-foot locks. It takes time and money for the barge tow to pull into the lock, break apart, back up, lock the first section through, pull back in and lock through, then reconnect the barge tow back together again. It would cut the time it takes to lock through down by two-thirds and ensure safer working conditions, as the tows wouldn’t have to be broken apart then reconnected if locks were upgraded to 1,200 feet.

Last September, the midsection of our country—especially midwestern farmers—saw the results of a significant reduction in river transportation as Hurricane Katrina nearly halted river traffic. Grain prices immediately and dramatically went down as a result. Grain export shipments weren’t able to exit the mouth of the Mississippi, causing a back log of barge shipments upstream.

Peoria County farmers produce on average 25 million bushels of grain each year. We border the river, so a large percentage of this grain is exported. In fact, two-thirds of the nation’s grain exports travel down the Illinois/Mississippi River system to the Gulf of Mexico. Even if the grain isn’t shipped, byproducts of grain may be, such as ethanol or livestock feed. IBI