River expert: 'Without flood control, nothing else matters'

Workers at Gardner Denver prepare sandbags to protect the building at the back gate on the southwest corner. (H-W Photo/Michael Kipley)
Posted: Apr. 20, 2013 5:48 pm Updated: May. 11, 2013 9:15 pm

Herald-Whig Senior Writer

Floodwaters on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers may make this the time to convince members of Congress to pass legislation and funding for waterways.

"I'm supposed to head to Washington (today). I'll meet with our representatives and senators while I'm there," said Mike Klingner, a Quincy engineer and chairman of the Upper Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri Rivers Association.

Waterway issues already have come up in the U.S. Capitol.

The U.S. House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment met Tuesday to hear testimony on what sponsors hope will be the first reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act since 2007. Panel members got an earful from a variety of speakers representing different waterway interests.

Coastal constituencies asked for greater sand dune establishment to combat storm surges. Spokesmen for U.S. ports and the dredging industry urged the federal government to spend all of the $1.6 billion in cargo fees collected each year on dredging.

River issues came up too, but didn't get the focused attention proponents wanted. That is expected to change as flooding hits the national news.

"On the Illinois River we expect this to be a flood of record and it's going to be parallel to about the '73 flood on the Mississippi," Klingner said.

A record flood will capture national attention.

Fox News Channel will be prepared, with video shot a few weeks ago when Nicole Busch came to Quincy to do interviews with Klingner and Roger Sutter, president of the Fabius River Drainage District. Fox had planned to broadcast the story about levee districts this week, but it was delayed because of news of the Boston Marathon bombing and the shootout with suspects.

Meagan Perry Kaiser, executive director of UMIMRA, wants members of Congress to know that river issues affect more than barge operators and recreational boaters.

"Without flood control, nothing else matters," Kaiser said.

"The Fabius levee at West Quincy is a very good example of a district protecting all modes of commerce transportation: Four-lane highways, railroads and navigation, in addition to the prime farmland."

Kaiser said levee improvements need to be a priority.

In Illinois, Missouri and Iowa, the most serious levee problems have to do with overtopping. When levees are built to only withstand 25-year or 50-year floods. Along the Mississippi River's lower reaches the federal and state governments have helped build levees up to withstand a 500-year flood.

Klingner said a comprehensive levee and navigation plan needs to be adopted.

WRDA was approved in 2007, but has not funded the construction of 1,200-foot lock chambers at Quincy, as well as the Missouri communities of Canton, Saverton, Clarksville and Winfield along the Mississippi River and the Peoria and LaGrange locks on the Illinois River.

Paul Taylor, president of the Illinois Corn Growers Association said the 80-year-old, 600-foot lock chambers are "in a desperate state of disrepair" and needlessly clog river transportation. Most barge tows have to lock through the 600-foot chambers in two procedures, forcing crews to decouple a system of barges at each lock and then reconnect the two halves after locking through.

U.S. Corps of Engineers estimates put the lock construction costs at about $1.5 billion. Klingner said members of the barge industry have volunteered to pay higher fuel taxes if the money will be used to upgrade the locks.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., sponsored legislation that would create a pilot project with a 1,200-foot lock chamber to demonstrate WRDA's importance to river traffic.