Some in Congress; much of the general public outside the Mississippi River basin, and even some university ecologists and other professors aren’t convinced it is a wise idea to invest heavily in upgrading the locks and dams system of the Mississippi River.

Earlier this month, Robert Criss, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University, St. Louis, wrote a commentary for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper in which he argued against an “infusion of federal funds for river engineering and maintenance projects” for the Mississippi River and Missouri River.

To condense and paraphrase, Criss had six points of complaints:

  1. River structures impede flow and destroy wetlands or isolate the channel from floodplains.
  2. Loss of shallow water and island habitat decrease fish, fowl and mussel type animal reproduction and volume.
  3. River structures provide opportunities for invasive river species to spread such as Asian carp.
  4. Barge traffic is not economical and requires constant taxpayer money to build and maintain locks and dams because barge companies don’t pay expense other than a fuel tax.
  5. Barge traffic is problematic because of river structures such as locks and dams and bridges can be easily damaged by barges.
  6. Weather instability is projected to cause high differences of water level from year to year.

Criss suggested rules to reducing the length and draft of barge tows on the upper Mississippi River, make barge companies pay more costs and “de-authorize” barge navigation of the Missouri River.

What initiated the commentary from Criss was a bipartisan group of senators sending a letter to the leaders of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The senators asked the committee to include funding and strong language for establishing a long-term strategy to expedite construction and operation of lock and dam projects along the Mississippi River, with a long-term strategy in a new Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).  

U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) sent the letter.

"The system of locks and dams along the Upper Mississippi is in desperate need of modernization. The current system was built 70 years ago and updates are needed to fit the requirements of modern barge technology. Many of the older locks are only 600 feet in length, while most current barge tows using the waterway are twice as long. That means these goods take twice as long to get down river and into the marketplace," wrote the senators.

The senators contend the overall reliability and timeliness of using the inland waterways system is of significant national interest. Use of the river is an economic trafficway of major importance to the nation, it was noted.

After Criss’ letter, Dean Campbell of Coulterville, Ill., an American Soybean Association board member, “defended the investments, highlighting the importance of the inland waterways system to the soybean industry and the contributions of the industry to the local and national economy,” through an association news release.

"Dr. Criss’ presumption that locks only benefit the operators on the rivers ignores the importance of soybean exports to global markets, and the positive impact those exports have on our economy," wrote Campbell.

Citing increased efficiency and reduced impact, Campbell added, "Dr. Criss suggests that we should instead use rail cars or trucks, ignoring the fact that more than 1,000 trucks—or 216 rail cars pulled by 16 locomotives—are needed to move the same soybeans as just one typical barge tow. We rely on our inland waterways to move our product efficiently and effectively to market, while helping to sustain vital local economies.”

The published commentary by Criss can be read by clicking here.

The letter from the senators can be read by clicking here.