Proposed Federal Budget Could Have Big Impact On Mississippi River Infrastructure

Obama's Proposal Includes Cuts To U.S. Army Corps Of Engineers Civil Works Program

Crews with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers performing maintenance work on Lock and Dam 5A along the Upper Mississippi River. Maureen McCollum/WPR

Just south of Fountain City in western Wisconsin, there’s a gaping hole in the Mississippi River, an empty space that could fit 16 Olympic-size swimming pools. The hole is Lock and Dam 5A, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has dewatered so crews can repair the massive gates that hold the water back.

During the warmer months, barges and pontoon boats heading north and south pass through the locks. But when the river freezes, crew members can jackhammer the exposed concrete walls and replace sections that are crumbling. It’s routine maintenance that happens every 20 years or so on the Upper Mississippi River’s locks.

“This is sort of like an oil change for your car,” said Robert Edstrom, a project manager for the Corps in the St. Paul District. “It’s basically something that keeps these locks in great condition.”

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As Congress sorts through President Barack Obama’s proposed budget, those who work on the Mississippi River are waiting to see how the funding could impact navigation and environmental projects near Wisconsin.

The Lock and Dam 5A project will cost about $3.7 million, money that comes out of the Corps’ operations and maintenance budget. Obama’s budget proposed cutting the Corps’ Civil Works program by about 13 percent.

“It’s really disappointing for a budget that’s supposed to be so infrastructure-focused,” said Debra Colbert, the senior vice president of Waterways Council, an advocacy group for inland water systems and ports.

Colbert said Congress has a history of putting more money towards Corps projects as members work through the budget. Colbert said it’s needed, given that the Mississippi River’s infrastructure needs major upgrades.

“The inland waterways are sort of the silent workhorse, and they are out-of-sight, out-of-mind,” she said. “Even those in the Midwest may drive over bridges or drive along the river and see barges moving product, but not really understand the impact of that.”

Millions of tons of coal, grains, road salt and fertilizer move up and down the Mississippi River each year.

Money that funds the Corps’ $2.7 billion operations and maintenance budget comes from federal, general appropriations. There are also newer, often major-priority projects that are made possible because of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, or WRRDA, which Congress passed last year. It and previous bills authorize projects, allowing Congress to fund them. That pays for projects like the massive Olmsted Lock and Dam that’s being built on the Ohio River.

There are currently no major construction projects planned for the Upper Mississippi River around Wisconsin, unlike elsewhere in the country. But that could change if Congress decides to fund the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program, also known as NESP. The 50-year project was authorized by WRDA in 2007, but has never been funded. For every dollar spent on navigation upgrades, one dollar would go toward ecosystem rehabilitation.

“If it were to get construction account funding, it would allow us to actually do environmental work that is planned in our portion of the river,” said Judy DesHarnais, the Army Corps of Engineers’ deputy for programs and project management in the St. Paul District.

That work would include improvements to bird habitat, water quality and erosion control.

Under NESP, Upper Mississippi River locks in Missouri and Illinois could double in size. It’s unlikely those expansions would be seen anytime soon near Wisconsin. But what happens in the south affects the north. The expansions could help shippers move products through infrastructure like Lock and Dam 5A near Fountain City much faster.