Advocates warn against aging lock and dam system

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Barge traffic approaches Lock and Dam 8
Barge traffic approaches Lock and Dam 8

La Crosse, Wis. (WXOW) – Living along the Mississippi River, we’ve all grown common to seeing boats and barges traveling along the water way.

Mark and Adam Binsfeld with J.F. Brennan Company know the river well as they work directly with the water each day.

“When the line boats come up the river, they’re carrying 12 to 15 barges and they come into the harbor,” Mark Binsfeld explains. “They need a harbor service provider like us to pull a barge off.”

The company employs around 435 people and handles around 6,000 barges a year, but it could all be lost if money to repair the locks and dams continues to be underfunded.

“It’s critical,” Adam Binsfeld said. “We couldn’t operate if anyone of the locks south of us were to fail and the industry in total. If anyone of the 29 locks on the upper Mississippi would fail, we’d be in big trouble as an industry.”

The concerns come from the age of the structures. Built in the 1930s the system was only designed for a 50 year life span. Currently the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers uses a fix to fail method.

“…because of the budgeting constraints we’re under, we don’t have enough dollars basically to be proactive in taking care of all of the backlog maintenance,” Lock & Dam 8 Lock Master Jane Mathison explains.

Mark Binsfeld says the good news is the locks are not in danger of failing as repairs are evenly distributed, but operationally they’re still working on 1930s equipment and those can cause a major problem.

Part of the gate at Lock and Dam 8
Part of the gate at Lock and Dam 8

“The more you put off maintenance, the more maintenance it’s going to need and the more repairs you’re going to need to keep them running,” He added. “The upper Mississippi River system is basically a one lane highway right now. If one lock and dam goes down, it’s like the bridge is out.”

This would have big impacts on agriculture, construction and many other industries that use the river to ship goods, including those shipped internationally.

“Without the barge industry, all of the commodities that we do see up at this end of the river you would imagine would go onto rail cars or traveling by trucks,” Mathison elaborates.

Creating a heavy burden on roads and rails as a 15 barge tow equals 216 rail cars or 1,050 large semi trucks.

U.S. Representative Ron Kind knows how important the river is to the local and national economy. After projects across the nation received some needed attention, he says it’s time the river received its due share.

Shot of Mississippi River water“I think the Mississippi is next in line and it’s important.”

One project passed in 2007 called the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program authorizes the modernization of seven locks and dams on the upper Mississippi River. However it’s yet to be funded causing this project to be delayed and maintenance funding continues to lag behind.

“We’re about $1 billion short with routine operation and maintenance of these lock and dams,” Kind said. “That’s just a billion to keep them functioning normally the way you want.”

Kind says the problem isn’t getting people along the river to understand the need, it’s the other states.

“Many of them aren’t aware of how interconnected we are with this vast ecosystem and how important and valuable it is to us nationwide,” he said.

Adam Binsfield says he’ll continue to keep an eye on news out of Washington, but hopes the message is loud and clear.

“In my opinion it’s a must do. There is no option of not reinvesting in the system.”a look at the side of Lock and Dam 8 in Genoa

Rep. Kind says the Conference Energy and Water Appropriations act passed last month which included $368 million for the Mississippi River account, which is $123 million over what President Donald Trump requested. It also included $3.74 billion for operation and maintenance for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineeers.

Check out part two of our coverage on the Mississippi lock and dam system here.

Barge traffic approaches Lock and Dam 7.
Jeremy Culver

Jeremy Culver

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