Restoring America's River: Using the Water Resources Act To Mend the Upper Mississippi River
In the 1930s, America was in turmoil due to the Great Depression. Jobs were in short supply, so Congress fast-tracked large, government-funded construction projects – including a lock and dam system on the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway (UMR-IWW) – to drive economic recovery. Commercial navigation on the UMR-IWW had all but disappeared after the region’s timber boom ended at the close of the 1800s – that is, until Congress authorized construction of new locks and dams and a system for barge transportation.
Unfortunately, the structures built to facilitate barge navigation on the Mississippi River significantly damaged river ecosystems. The UMR-IWW no longer fluctuates seasonally. Floods do not provide access to calm backwaters for fish to rear their young. Low flows that provide the right conditions for native aquatic plants to gain hold and grow have dramatically decreased. Native aquatic species – and the fish and wildlife that depend on them – are being threatened by significant habitat degradation. Gone are the small islands where migrating ducks and geese built their nests and hatched their young. Increased sedimentation is smothering native plants and fish habitat alike.
Transportation on the river is important for the region, but it is not a growing sector of the transportation industry. Traffic plateaued in the 1980s, and since the mid-1990s, commercial navigation on the UMR has continuously declined and is expected to remain low in the decades to come. Despite this decline in barge traffic, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) proposed a series of massive new lock projects on the UMR-IWW. As part of the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program (NESP), the Corps proposed constructing seven new 1,200-foot locks on the UMR and handcuffed river restoration funding to this expansion of navigation infrastructure. New construction on the river would further damage water quality and fish and wildlife habitat while providing questionable benefits for the American people.
In 2010, the Nicollet Island Coalition (NIC) released a report, Big Price-Little Benefit: Proposed Locks on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Rivers Are Not Economically Viable, documenting the unsubstantiated economic justification for the proposed 1,200-foot locks. The report detailed declines in barge traffic that have left the lock-and-dam system operating well below its current capacity, negating the need for expanded lock capacity. Our report helped drive a new conversation about NESP. The program has not been funded since Fiscal Year 2011 and today the Corps is drafting a new direction for NESP. Although the new NESP strategy is not finalized, preliminary discussions indicate that many of the concerns expressed in NIC’s 2010 report should be addressed. This encouraging news comes as Congress considers the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) – multi-year legislation that governs construction of navigation, flood control, and other water resource infrastructure and environmental restoration conducted by the Corps.
In this report, the Nicollet Island Coalition reviews how existing federal programs can be used to restore the UMR-IWW and create more diverse local economies along the river while maintaining the river’s role in America’s transportation system. As the next Water Resources Development Act is drafted, this report will provide Congress and taxpayers with environmentally and economically sound recommendations for improving these programs.
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