Drought poses issues for lock system

It’s imperative that shipping stay unfettered

Anyone wondering the importance of the nation’s riverways should look no further than the Midwest, where a backup to beat all backups has been going on the last few days.

Most of it is dispelled now, but for a while the Mississippi River looked like a parking lot with dozens of tows and hundreds of barges waiting to get through damaged Lock 27 in Granite City. Some of the vessels were moored all the way north of Alton, miles away. Other operators were simply porting wherever they could find room until they could make their way downstream (or, for some, upstream).

Obviously anyone looking at a map can see all the waterways north of Granite City that feed into the Mississippi, including from the Illinois River, which carries a lot of freight. What they might not realize is that roughly half the nation’s farm exports pass through those locks, making the shutdown worrisome at a time growers are completing corn harvests.

That concept might not be clear, but every commodity delayed to the market can affect the price bottom line. And that’s a concept everyone with a wallet can understand.

What transpired at Lock 27 was a bit of an anomaly, a perfect storm of occurrences that made the shutdown a rarity. A split in a steel, cylindrical protection cell dumped rock from inside the cell into the approach for the locks, blocking their use. Such cells are designed to protect the lock wall and help direct barges into the locks. This particular cell is normally underwater but was exposed by this year’s drought, causing additional wear.

The mess had to be cleaned up before anything could be restarted, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and contractors spent most of 5 days flying by the seats of their pants to get the job done. It was a yeoman’s effort, a temporary fix until permanent repairs can be made.

The Mississippi River is the main artery of the largest inland navigation system in the world and Lock 27 is the busiest of the locks on the river. It’s also the last hurdle going south before the Gulf of Mexico. More than 73 million tons of cargo moves through each year, and an unscheduled closure can cost more than $2 million per day.

What we saw at the peak of the shutdown was a line of 455 barges waiting to get through – the estimated equivalent of 26,500 large semitrailers. Imagine that kind of blockage on an interstate highway.

It’s imperative for the national commerce that shipping navigation remains unfettered, and that means constant attention to our system of locks, which is a growing challenge. This event could well reflect a pattern of things to come, depending in part on Mother Nature.

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