By Tim Alexander
PEORIA, Ill. – With locks and dams closed to commercial vessels through the rest of the summer, the Illinois River is a virtual pleasure boaters’ paradise these days. A recent Sunday drive on the river roads between Peoria and Chillicothe revealed a river free of merchant ships, packing boats or barges for the first time anyone here can remember – perhaps since the era of French fur traders.
This is because of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ long-expected closure of five locks and dams along the length of the 273-mile Illinois River, whose confluence lies near the convergence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers at Grafton, Ill., for much-needed repairs. On July 6, 2020, overhauls ranging from bulkhead repair to miter gate replacement and general maintenance began at the Marseilles, Dresden Island, LaGrange, Peoria and Starved Rock locks and dams. The work is not expected to conclude until late October, according to a timeline published by the Army Corps’ Rock Island District, which is coordinating the work being done by contracted laborers.
“This is something that agriculture, transportation and their stakeholders have been clamoring for for many years,” said Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition (STC) in Ankeny, Iowa. “Clearly the Illinois River is an important conduit for soybean and agriculture.”
Calling the LaGrange Lock and Dam the “poster child” for poorly-maintained waterways infrastructure on the Illinois River, Steenhoek expressed pleasure that this facility, in particular, is finally receiving the upkeep it requires after decades of neglect. “You don’t have to be a structural engineer to see that it is not a matter of if there will be a failure at LaGrange Lock and Dam, it’s a matter of when. The crumbling concrete and the rust is quite evident,” he said.
Stakeholders – including farmers – have a lot to be happy about, in spite of the temporary hassle of rerouting delivery destinations some who farm in the river basin may experience. First is that the work is finally proceeding after decades of red tape, promises, fiscal reappropriations and bills that failed to get funded. Secondly, the work has been scheduled simultaneously, rather than subsequently, on the five affected locks.
“This is work that was carefully planned and had been signaled to the broader community, including the stakeholders along the river,” Steenhoek said. “Yes, it will pose an inconvenience for farmers located 10 or 20 miles from the river that use barge loading facilities. They will have to drive longer distances. Every mile of additional transportation increases the costs of delivering that product and is money taken out of the organization. But this work needs to be done, and at the end of the day the plan is to have a better-maintained, more reliable inland waterway system on the Illinois River, which will better position these stakeholders in the future.”
Limited barge usage for transportation will still be an option between the closed dams – in areas known as “pools” – during the scheduled maintenance period. In addition, the two southernmost dams – at Peoria and LaGrange – are wicket dams, which can be lowered at times of higher water levels, allowing a tow to bypass the lock chamber. However, recent drought-like conditions have left water levels below what is necessary to pass a vessel through.
With a completion date for most facilities projected for late October, harvest movements of grain are expected to be affected for those who rely on barge terminals for transportation. Steenhoek said the STC has advised the Army Corps’ Rock Island District to keep farmers advised on the progress of the work.
“We asked them if they find the schedule falling behind and they have the choice to over communicate with stakeholders or under communicate, to please choose to over communicate. This will allow people to make alternative arrangements,” Steenhoek said. “They have affirmed that approach.”
Basis for corn and soybeans moving on the Illinois River ahead of the closure was stronger as shippers scrambled to get barges loaded and released ahead of dates specified by barge lines, according to the CME Group. Delivery in the CBOT corn and soybeans futures contracts is along the 403-mile section of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers from terminals in Chicago and Burns Harbor, Ind., and south to St. Louis.
The CME Group website (www.cmegroup.com) provides updates on delivery dates affected for corn and soybean futures due to lock and dam closures on the Illinois River. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Rock Island District updates lock and dam maintenance progress on the Illinois River at www.mvr.usace.army.mil.