Barge tour gives glimpse into lock and dam needs

Terry Bibo

Perhaps the most persuasive argument for upgrading locks and dams along the Illinois River is the massive bridge collapse in Minneapolis that happened just days ago.

"We cannot continue to depend on infrastructure built 50 years ago," Garry Niemeyer, director of the National Corn Growers Association, warned 120 people on the Illinois & Mississippi River Barge Tour Monday.

Now in its 11th year, the tour has given more than 15,000 people a first-hand view of our own aging hardware, according to Niemeyer. He moderated the Pekin-to-Peoria portion of the tour, which will continue along the Mississippi on Wednesday and on Aug. 14.

With the federal Water Resources Development Act of 2007 hanging in the balance, more than the usual suspects were on hand making the case for $21 billion to improve locks and dams and river ecosystems.

Speakers ranging from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the West Central Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council offered reasons why the bill would be a local benefit. About $3.7 billion of the total would be spent around this area, $2 billion on locks and dams and $1.7 billion on river restoration.

Thousands of jobs would be created during the course of the project, which would speed and simplify barge traffic. Half of Illinois’ corn and soybeans is exported, mostly by major companies like ADM using river barges.

"This is our access, our ‘third coast,’" said Paul Rohde, vice president of the Waterways Council Inc. Midwest area. He emphasized that the alliances include the Illinois Corn Growers Association, Illinois Soybean Association, Illinois Farm Bureau, as well as unions, businesses, and environmental groups such as the Nature Conservancy. "This is an important economic transportation corridor. It is an important environmental area of the country."

Listeners including those from the Canton Methodist church and a retired Illinois Central College economics professor spent nearly three hours evaluating all this information and observing the river at work.

"I wanted to hear it for myself," said Jim Miller, the former ICC professor.

They were urged to support the water resources bill, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives 381-40 last week and is expected to pass through the U.S. Senate in early September. But President George W. Bush has threatened to veto it.

"We know how to restore this river," said Dan McGuiness, director of the Audubon Mississippi River program. "What I’m worried about is that we lack the political will and agency leadership to get the job done."

And as several speakers mentioned, the Minneapolis bridge disaster points out that infrastructure failure can be catastrophic.

Parts of the local locks and dams are 70 years old. At best, it will take 18 to 19 years to replace the five local locks and see the full benefit.

"We’re very vulnerable," said Mike Cox of the Army Corps of Engineers. "If we had an accident this afternoon, we could have the river shut down for weeks."

Terry Bibo can be reached at (309) 686-3189 or