Ruining the River

The barges that ply the Mississippi from Minneapolis to St.
Louis go up and down a long flight of stairs: the 29 locks and dams
on thsi upper stretch of the river. Overseen by the U.S. Army Corps
of Engineers, the locks are massive tanks that fill and empty as
they lift and lower barges to accommodate the river’s changing
water levels. The Corps now wants to rebuild the locks, saying that
the current system can no longer effectively carry grain and other
key Midwestern exports out into the global market. Critics argue
that the project would pour a lot of concrete and money into the
Mississippi to fix an imaginary problem, at great cost to taxpayers
and to the river itself.

As the Corps and its allies in the barge industry see it, almost
all the lock-and-dam facilities along the 663-mile stretch of river
are just too small to handle the traffic. A standard barge, about
195 feet long and 35 feet wide, usually travels in a raft made up
of several such barges, guided by a single towboat. There’s room
enough inside the 600-foot locks for, say, eight barges lashed
together, whereas a few newer 1,200-foot locks can handle at least
twice that number. The bigger rafts — now quite common — have to
be broken down on one side of the smaller locks and reassembled on
the other, increasing the passage time from half an hour to as long
as an hour and a half.

Upgrading the facilities would cost $2.1 billion over 20 years.
The growing opposition to this proposal includes many environmental
groups, and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).
They say the Corps has exaggerated the problem and they question
the wisdom of tearing apart a river already ecologically ravaged by
the Corps’ previous projects. Cheaper, simpler measures could
improve the situation with far less environmental impact, they

The Corps’ proposal ignited controversy in 2000, when Corps
economist Donald Sweeney revealed that the agency’s economic
analyses had been manipulated in order to justify the project. The
whistle blowing led to a Washington Post investigative
series on the Corps’ practices. A subsequent review by the National
Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council reached similar
conclusions and recommended that the Corps revise the report, this
time without cooking the data.

The Corps’ interim report appeared last July — to similar
reviews. Skepticism focused on the Corps’ prediction that barge
traffic would increase over the next 50 years, though it has
remained roughly the same for the past 20.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
(, a think tank on
rural issues based in Minneapolis, weighed in with its own highly
critical report. IATP concluded that the Corps’ traffic forecasts
for the Missouri River, the Mississippi River, the Great Lakes-St.
Lawrence Seaway, and the Tennessee Tombigbee Waterway are less than
what the Corps estimated in its proposal. ‘If barge traffic stays
at about the current level,’ they concluded, ‘there is no economic
rationale for lengthening locks and spending taxpayer dollars.’

Environmental Defense, a New York-based group, is concerned that
building new structures would harm the river’s ecosystem. Instead
they recommend alternatives that won’t harm the environment:
discounts for use during low-demand periods, penalties at
peak-demand periods, and traffic control via an appointment system
based on global positioning technology.

The Corps’ past environment and ethical record aside, IATP’s
Mark Muller believes the hard truth is that the region’s exports
are never going achieve the demand they enjoyed in the 1970s.

‘You can build the best transportation infrastructure in the
world, but that won’t do anything to change the fact that Minnesota
taconite and wheat are losing market share,’ he said. ‘No matter
what technologies we have available, other countries with cheaper
land and labor costs are going to out-compete us.’

Muller is not optimistic that the criticism being flung at the
Corps will stop the plan. He sees pork-barrel spending as the real
issue. ‘The Corps is simply the conveyor,’ he said, ‘and if their
boss, Congress, wants a project, they will figure out a way to make
it happen.’

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.