Barge traffic clogs Mississippi River

Emily Dalnodar

If commuters had to wait 36 hours to get through a toll booth on the highway, road rage would be the norm. But that’s how long some barge workers wait to get through the locks and dams on the Mississippi River.
University applied economics professor Jerry Fruin, who researches bulk commodity transportation, says the Mississippi River needs improvement when it comes to locks and dams to deal with the onslaught of barge traffic between Alton, Ill., and the Twin Cities.
The original system, built in the early 1930s, was designed to deal with the amount of traffic for that time.
Statistics from 1992 show barges transport 86 million tons of commodities, like agricultural products, annually. This number is projected to rise to between 93 and 112 million tons by the year 2000, according to a study by the Army Corps of Engineers.
“I feel that we will need to, due to growth and the economy, expand the capacity of the locks,” Fruin said.
Fruin is waiting for the final results of the Upper Mississippi Navigation Study, a 7-year research project conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers, to decide whether large- or small-scale changes are needed.
These results, an assessment of the waterway traffic for the upcoming 50 years, won’t be ready until 2000, but preliminary results will be out this year.
“It doesn’t look like there will be any big changes in the next 50 years,” said Kevin Bluhm, public involvement technical manager for the engineering corps.
Representatives from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa and Missouri will discuss issues surrounding the project, said Dave Tipple, study manager at the corps’ Rock Island, Ill., office. Other groups involved include the Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency.
The major issue right now is the time-consuming process. A standard barge is 1,200 feet long. Locks are only 600 feet. To get through, a barge has to be split apart and reassembled in the lock before another boat can go through. This takes an hour and a half for each barge.
Recommendations lean toward making many small-scale improvements first, Bluhm said.
Some of the small improvements suggested include finding ways to reassemble the barges outside of the locks. This would allow each barge to get in a half hour sooner and alleviate river back-ups.
The Mississippi River is one of the major transit ways for shipment of Minnesota’s agricultural exports.
“Sixty percent of the United State’s agricultural exports go down the river. Two-thirds of Minnesota’s exports go down the river. This amounts to 25 percent of the grains and oil seeds that go to world trade,” Fruin said.
Barges are the best way to move the exports, Bluhm said. According to figures from the Iowa Department of Transportation, one barge’s cargo capacity is equivalent to 15 railroad cars or 58 truck trailers.
If barges were replaced right now with trucks, Interstate 35 would be bumper-to-bumper trucks for miles, Bluhm said.
Even though barges seem the most economically and environmentally feasible, there are still issues to explore. One worry is if improvements are made, barge traffic will greatly increase, affecting wildlife in the area.
“The biggest environmental concerns are degradation of the quality of water and the habitat,” Bluhm said.
The engineering study will determine what, if any, environmental hazards would be posed to fish, plants and fresh water mussels by extra traffic.
Engineers are still working on a number of biological models to predict what the effects will be 10 years from now. Although the official results of the models won’t be ready for some time, preliminary findings show barges don’t carry much risk.
“Based on two years of field sampling, larval fish, which are small fish, can’t swim very fast and can’t escape barges so they get run over,” said Ken Barr, technical manager for environmental studies on the project.
But by dragging a net behind a large boat, Barr determined adult fish have no trouble getting away from these barges. He only recovered a half dozen such fish in two years with wounds indicating a run-in with a barge.
The other big concern was sediment toss-up created when the barges tread through the water. Although there is some disturbance, it is not enough so far to warrant much concern, Bluhm said.
“I take the view that barging, itself, doesn’t have much impact when it is done properly,” Fruin said. “If you look at how the river was in Mark Twain’s day as compared to how it is now, it is much more environmentally friendly. The extremes of floods and droughts are no longer there.”