Mississippi River's locks and dams could see money for repairs - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Mississippi River's locks and dams could finally see money for repairs

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DUBUQUE (KWWL) -

Crumbling infrastructure on the upper Mississippi River's lock and dam system is worrying people ranging from business owners, farmers and local leaders to, now, national politicians.

On Wednesday, the US House of Representatives passed a bill that would give more than $8 billion for dams, river navigation and other water projects for the coming decade. It needs the senate's and then the president's approval to become law.

Thursday afternoon, more than 20,000 tons of coal made its way through Lock and Dam 11 in Dubuque. Lockmaster Jim Piper said the dam sees all kinds of commodities throughout the year.

"All the grain and everything that goes down and the fertilizer for the farmers and the coal for the power plants and asphalt and petroleum and, you know, anything you can put in a barge, you can take up and down the river system in the United States," Piper said.

Lock and Dam 11 is one of the lucky ones, as it received a major $54 million renovation in recent years, but many of the upper Mississippi River's locks and dams are not so fortunate.

"Concrete's deteriorating, machinery's deteriorating and, you know, one of these days we're going to be in a lot of trouble," Piper said.

The economy would be in trouble, he said, if even one of these aging locks, built along the upper Mississippi River in the 1930s, broke down.

Dubuque's mayor Roy Buol is co-chair of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, which had a meeting this month in Memphis, Tenn. to discuss major issues facing the waterway. He said cities all along the river have concerns about aging infrastructure, too.

"It's a very critical need and something that's really top-of-mind for people that use that river for commerce: barge companies, tow companies, farmers in Iowa, who ship much of their grain - I think 60 percent of all the grain produced in the Midwest goes down the Mississippi on barges," Buol said.

The Iowa Department of Transportation has a chart comparing a load of goods on a barge versus on a jumbo train car or semi truck.

One 15-barge tow can carry a load on the river equivalent to 225 jumbo hopper cars and 870 large semi trucks.

Furthermore, one 15-barge tow spans just one-quarter of a mile, whereas 225 jumbo hopper cars stretch 2.75 miles and 870 semi trucks bumper-to-bumper would cover 11.5 miles.

"If this system went down, that'd be 870 semis that we'd have to deal with for every tow," Piper said. "This time of the year, we get 10 or 15 tows through here in a 24-hour period."

Not only do locks and dams on the Mississippi River need to be reinforced, Piper said, but they would ideally have dual chambers, as they do on the Ohio River.

Currently, each lock chamber on the upper Mississippi River is just 600 feet long, meaning a barge carrying a longer, larger load can't lock through in one trip. That delay adds both time and money to the commute. Locks and dams on the Ohio River have 1,200-foot chambers, meaning most barges can lock through the dam in one piece.

"When you look at the commerce corridor that the Mississippi represents, it's greater than any other transportation corridor in the country," Buol said, "and yet the infrastructure is not being redeveloped, repurposed, restructured."

"I'm kind of at the end of my career," Piper said, "but, you know, I would like to see this around for the next 100 years."

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