I-TEAM: Fall crop depends on aging locks & dams

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Versailles, Ill (WAND) – Built between 1936 & 1939 the LaGrange Lock & Dam still handles barge traffic years after its design life.

The LaGrange Lock & Dam is located on the Illinois River north of Jacksonville and about 7.8 miles south of Beardstown in central Illinois.  Its design life was 50 years.  It still operates 24/7 some 80 years later. 

The lock and dam system on the Illinois, Mississippi and Ohio Rivers move billions of dollars of products on the nations inland waterways with much of the traffic heading to export terminals in New Orleans.  But many of those locks and dams are in desperate need of repair and upgrades.

When the I-TEAM arrived at the LaGrange Lock one day in mid-August a barge moving petroleum products was already in the lock with 13 others holding in both directions waiting to go through.  They would sit there for hours waiting their turn.

“You’ll have a line of boats sitting out like we have today waiting to get through and that’s with the locks working,” Illinois Corn Growers Association Executive Director Rodney Weinzierl told I-TEAM reporter Doug Wolfe.  “If the locks weren’t working for some reason all these boats would be tied up waiting for that lock to be fixed.”

Nearly 60% of Illinois’ exported grain moves along the river system.  Delays, either due to maintenance issues or weather, can mean dramatic shifts in commodity prices.  Weinzierl used the drought earlier this decade as an example.

“We probably lost 20 to 25-cents a bushel just because we did not have an efficient transportation system for those couple of months,” Weinzierl stated.  He then noted price shifts caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  “When we had Katrina hit the entire river system shut down.  When that happened the price of corn dropped within 24 hours 40-cents a bushel.”

Congressmen Rodney Davis, (R) Illinois and Congressman Darin LaHood, (R) Illinois, worked to get $10 million for needed upgrades at the LaGrange Lock & Dam. 

“They’ve invested for the first time in years $10 million to make needed repairs here at LaGrange,” Davis said.  “And another million dollars to ensure that we update the economic studies to get the rest of the projects done along the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.”

Accidents can also slow waterway traffic.  There were two barge accidents over the summer at the Melvin Price Locks and Dam at Alton, Illinois on the Mississippi River.  One employee of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the locks and dams, told WAND News he believed as many as 50 barges backed up waiting for repairs to be completed as a result of the mishaps.

In addition to agricultural exports many other products are moved on the inland waterway system in Illinois including petroleum and manufactured products, coal and scrap metal.

In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated it would take $4.9 billion over the next the next 20-years to repair and upgrade the nations locks and dams.  The organization also said in its report nearly half of the vessels using locks experience delays.   

(Picture: Barge moves through the LaGrange Lock in Versailles on the Illinois River in August 2018.)

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