QUINCY -- U.S. senators from four Midwestern states are leading an effort to seek federal funds for a long-awaited plan to expand and modernize seven locks and dams on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, including Lock and Dam 21 in Quincy.
U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) last week sent a letter to Senate and House appropriators urging the inclusion of funds for the Navigation and Ecosystem Restoration Program (NESP) in the Fiscal Year 2020 Energy and Water Development Appropriations bills.
The senators were joined in their bipartisan funding request by two U.S. representatives -- Cheri Bustos (D-17 of Illinois) and Jason Smith (R-8 of Missouri).
NESP calls for spending several billion dollars for navigation improvements while spending a similar amount restoring habitat at seven key locations along the two rivers. This work was authorized by the Water Resources Development Act of 2007, but funding for construction has never been appropriated.
The navigation enhancements call for having the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers build new 1,200-foot locks alongside the existing 600-foot lock chambers at Locks and Dams 20, 21, 22, 24 and 25 on the Mississippi River and the Peoria and LaGrange locks on the Illinois River.
The senators and congressmen say the proposed river enhancements are vital to help make navigation more efficient and help American farm products compete more effectively in the world market.
"Our nation's water infrastructure plays a critical role in maintaining our competitiveness in the global economy by ensuring the safe and efficient movement of goods to market, but the current backlog of outstanding water infrastructure projects pending before the Corps is putting that competitiveness at risk," the legislators wrote.
"Congress recognized the importance of modernizing our water infrastructure when it authorized NESP in 2007. NESP is an important, dual-purpose program that allows the Corps to address both navigation and ecosystem restoration in an integrated approach that will result in the expansion of seven outdated locks along the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Rivers."
The senators and congressmen are asking that energy and water appropriation bills include funding in fiscal 2020 for "preconstruction engineering and design" so NESP can be ready to receive "new start construction funding as soon as such funding becomes available."
Mike Klingner of Quincy, chairman of the Upper Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri Rivers Association, said he was pleased to see the legislators going to bat in support of the NESP project.
"We strongly support the ongoing work on NESP," Klingner said. "UMIMRA has been an avid supporter of this."
Klingner said the proposed navigation improvements are long overdue. He said river traffic continues to get bottled up during the busiest parts of the navigation season because the seven targeted locks are only 600 feet long. This forces towboat operators to stop and separate their typical 15-barge tow configurations so the vessels can be sent through the locks in two time-consuming passes instead of one.
Klingner said he hopes the Corps will continue to proceed with plans to build seven new 1,200-foot locks while also keeping the existing 600-foot lock chambers, which could then be used for backup whenever maintenance or repairs must be carried out on the main locks.
Under the current arrangement with single locks at each location, river traffic essentially shuts down if any one lock gets taken out of service.
"It's like a chain," Klingner said. "If you lose one link, the whole chain is broke. That's why it's so important to have dual locks."
Klingner said while he is glad to see the legislators pushing for funding to continue with preconstruction engineering and design, "what we'd really like to see is construction dollars" set aside for the project.
"This has been recognized by Congress as a real need and an importance," he said.
A contingent of UMIMRA members met with area legislators during a trip to Washington, D.C., in March. Klingner said the group not only sought funding for NESP but also asked the legislators to support efforts to provide better flood protection along major Midwestern rivers.