Restoring America's River

Mississippi River at Alma, Wisconsin

The Mississippi River flows 2,300 miles from Lake Itasca, Minnesota, past New Orleans, Louisiana, where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The section known as the Upper Mississippi River (UMR) extends from the river’s headwaters down to the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers — a journey of 1,200 miles that also includes the Illinois River.

The League’s roots run deep in this region, beginning with the fight for the Upper Mississippi River Wildlife and Fish Refuge in the 1920s and continuing today as a champion for river restoration.

Thirty million people call this area home — and about half of them rely on drinking water from the Upper Mississippi and its tributaries. The UMR is also a critical flyway for birds migrating through the Americas and is used by 60 percent of bird species in North America, including 40 percent of waterfowl. The river is home to numerous fish, reptile, and mammal species and provides critical habitat for approximately 390 state and 40 federal threatened and endangered species native to the UMR basin.1

The Upper Mississippi River is one of the most visited areas in the United States for recreation, with some 12 million visitors annually. The people who come to hunt, fish, boat, hike, bird watch, or otherwise enjoy the natural beauty of the river contribute more than $6.6 billion annually in revenue to the region’s economy and keep 143,000 people employed along the river corridor.2

However, the future of the UMR basin is at risk due to existing and proposed structures that “improve” the river.

Engineering Habitat Destruction

In the 1930s, America was in turmoil due to the Great Depression. Jobs were in short supply, so Congress fast-tracked government-funded construction projects to drive economic recovery — including a lock and dam system on the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway (UMR-IWW). Commercial navigation on the UMR-IWW had all but disappeared after the region’s timber boom ended in the late 1800s — that is, until Congress authorized construction of new locks and dams.

The Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) — as directed by Congress — had already dug channels, straightened riverbeds, and built levees down the Mississippi that severed connections between the river and the land around it. The project to develop a nine-foot-deep channel was completed in 1940 for $164 million. It included 37 locks and dams (see Figure 1) and must be continuously dredged to maintain its depth.

Maintaining water levels for navigation has transformed the river and degraded the environment. Floods no longer provide access to backwaters where fish can rear their young. Native aquatic species — and the fish and wildlife that depend on them — are threatened by habitat loss. Small islands where migrating ducks and geese once built their nests are covered with water. And increased sedimentation is smothering native plants and fish habitat.

The League is working to restore the natural environment throughout the UMR region. While the existing infrastructure remains vital to the Midwest economy, spending billions to expand the system is a bad investment. The current system can meet the region’s needs now and well into the future with regular maintenance and smart investments that benefit shippers and the American people alike.

Restoring habitat on big rivers that also support navigation is facilitated through federal legislation called the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).

What’s WRDA?

The Corps of Engineers has authority over the nation’s large rivers and other water resources to create and maintain infrastructure, manage flood risks, encourage recreation, and protect the environment. WRDA guides and directs the Corps’ work in each of these areas.

WRDA provides Congressional authority for the Corps to study water resource problems, construct projects, and make major modifications to projects. The programs authorized in each WRDA are permanent unless Congress includes expiration language. Congress is currently considering a new Water Resources Development Act, which presents an opportunity to address crucial UMR ecosystem and restoration issues.

Congress and taxpayers need information to make smart river management decisions and investments. We propose well-informed recommendations in three key areas: Navigation, restoration, and planning.


In the late 1800s and early 1900s, most U.S. agricultural exports were shipped by rail. When bumper crops in 1906 exceeded the rail capacity to ship grain, farmers started looking for a new mode of transportation.

In 1925, the Inland Waterways Corporation (a federal corporation supervised by the Secretary of War) began a campaign to reintroduce the Mississippi River as a cheap and easy transportation route. The barge industry lobbied farmers heavily. One year later, the federal government gave the Inland Waterways Corporation authority and funding to purchase and run barges on the Lower Mississippi River. River traffic began to pick up, and the first grain-to-barge terminals were quickly built.

However, it was still decades before barge traffic on the UMR grew substantially, peaking in the mid-1990s. Even with this traffic increase, shipping on the UMR-IWW has remained well below the capacity of the lock system.

Upkeep: Most UMR-IWW locks and dams were designed with a 50-year “life expectancy,” and most of these projects reached that milestone in the 1980s and 1990s. How are they still operating? The majority have undergone rehabilitation, which can extend the life span of locks and dams by 30 to 50 years at a fraction of the cost of replacing the structures. The average cost for a rehabilitation project is $37 million — pennies compared with the cost of building new locks and dams, which can run from $1 billion to $3 billion per project.

Congress has not adequately invested in on-going maintenance — without which lock and dam performance drops, causing delays or unexpected closures. The three Upper Mississippi Corps districts estimate their maintenance backlog totals $3 billion.3 The national construction backlog is $3.8 billion for projects currently underway,4 and Congress has authorized an additional $60 billion of work through past WRDAs.5

Funding: Lock and dam construction is funded using a combination of taxpayer dollars and monies from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF). Authorized in 1986, the IWTF is funded by a $0.20 per gallon tax on fuel used by barges, which generates approximately $80 million annually. These funds are allocated to pay half of the construction and rehabilitation costs for locks and dams. Taxpayer dollars are used to match IWTF contributions. However, a combined annual investment of $160 million is not near enough to clear the $3.8 billion backlog of projects on the ground today let alone begin new navigation projects.

In 2010, the Inland Waterways Users Board outlined a new strategy for inland waterway infrastructure investment. However, this strategy is far from a solution. It recommends changing the Inland Waterways Trust Fund cost-share mechanism by:

  • Eliminating industry cost-share for dam construction and rehabilitation
  • Eliminating industry cost-share for cost overruns
  • Increasing the fuel tax to as much as $0.29 per gallon
  • Eliminating industry cost-share for lock rehabilitation projects that cost less than $100 million

These changes would shift billions of dollars in navigation infrastructure projects costs onto taxpayers. Of particular concern is eliminating cost-share for project overruns because recent Corps construction projects have had cost overruns of more than 250 percent. The federal government is already struggling to fund maintenance and rehabilitation of the inland waterways system. Saddling taxpayers with additional costs is not the solution.

Lock Expansion: The 2007 Water Resources Development Act authorized the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program (NESP). This program focuses on expanding barge capacity by building 1,200-foot locks — five on the Upper Mississippi and two on the Illinois River. It also promises additional restoration funds, but only after work has begun on these new locks. The League strongly opposed creation of NESP because new locks are unnecessary and restoration funds should not be held hostage if navigation projects cannot be justified.

Although the Secretary of the Army (Civil Works) has not approved NESP or submitted a request to expand the UMR-IWW locks, the barge industry continues to push for it. As shown in our 2010 report, Big Price-Little Benefit: Proposed Locks on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Rivers Are Not Economically Viable, lock expansion cannot be justified for many reasons, including:

  • Most locks have excess capacity of more than 50 percent, which would accommodate any reasonable future increase in demand.
  • The Corps has been unable to maintain the existing lock and dam system. The large and growing project backlog creates a problem that new construction does not solve.
  • Non-structural and small-scale measures — including barge scheduling, mooring cells, and switch boats — have been identified by the Corps as ways to reduce barge lockage delays. (See Figure 2 for examples.)

League Recommendations: Barge traffic on the UMR has been dropping steadily since the mid-1990s. As the country focuses on reducing the federal deficit, we cannot afford to deepen our debt on projects that are not justified and are consistently plagued by billions of dollars in cost overruns. We ask Congress to:

  1. De-authorize the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program. Rather than giving a blank check to an unprofitable industry, Congress should eliminate NESP and
    a. Move the restoration component of NESP to the Upper Mississippi River Restoration-Environmental Management Program (UMRR-EMP).
    b. Separately authorize and fund small-scale and non-structural improvements through new authority for the Corps of Engineers. This authorization should not be tied to navigation infrastructure expansion or other restoration projects.
  2. Provide ongoing maintenance and on-time funding for scheduled rehabilitation and construction projects to reduce unscheduled lock closures and minimize cost escalations.
  3. Not shift the cost burden onto taxpayers. Barge transportation is already the most heavily subsidized mode of transportation in the country. Taxpayers should not be asked to pay even more when the current infrastructure meets today’s needs and is able to accommodate growth.


The Corps of Engineers is responsible for maintaining the environmental health of our nation’s water resources. Protecting and restoring the Upper Mississippi River was a priority identified by Congress when it declared the region a “nationally significant ecosystem” in WRDA 1986. However, navigation infrastructure and other modifications to the Upper Mississippi are the direct causes of the river’s environmental decline. It’s time to make restoration a national priority.

Restoration Programs: Three WRDA-authorized programs target restoration in the Upper Mississippi River basin. The most comprehensive is the Upper Mississippi River Restoration-Environmental Management Program, which to date has restored more 100,000 acres of habitat for less than $3,000 per acre. Projects focus on restoring and maintaining wet prairie, forest, deep water habitat, native aquatic vegetation, and wetlands.

River restoration not only improves the basin’s environment, it also boosts local economies by:

  • Increasing recreation. Improved river habitat increases tourism for fishing, boating, hiking, bird watching, and other outdoor sports. Tourism on the UMR provides $6.6 billion in revenue annually.6
  • Restoring natural functions. Protecting habitats that support aquatic species and other wildlife also promotes the ecosystem services of a healthy, functioning river. Return on this investment includes flood damage reduction, water quality improvements, and commercial fishing success.
  • Fighting invasive species. Improved habitat for native species will help them out-compete non-native plants and wildlife. Invasive species in the Great Lakes alone cost the region $200 million annually.7
  • Creating jobs. By the Corps’ own estimate, a fully funded UMRR-EMP will support almost 1,000 employees — from engineers to construction workers — and a healthy ecosystem also supports tourism-related jobs.

Despite its success, UMRR-EMP is not meeting its full potential for several reasons. First, although the program is authorized to receive about $33 million annually, Congress has routinely provided about half that amount through annual appropriations bills. Second, restoration projects are restricted to the channels of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. The smaller Illinois River Basin and Kaskaskia River Basin Restoration Programs, on the other hand, address environmental problems at the source, including backwaters, side channels, tributaries, and tributary watersheds.

League Recommendations: Upper Mississippi River restoration can be significantly improved if Congress adopts several policy changes:

  1. Increase restoration funding. UMRREMP should be fully funded to its authorized annual level of $33 million. Once the program is working at full capacity, Congress should transfer the restoration component of NESP to UMRR-EMP and increase restoration funding to $100 million — the level currently authorized under NESP. The Illinois River and Kaskaskia River Basin Restoration Programs should also be fully funded at authorized levels so project planning can continue and more projects can break ground.
  2. Expand the geographic area of UMRR - EMP. Limiting the program to the main channels limits the ability to address problems at the source. Instead of preventing erosion, the Corps continuously dredges the river. Authorizing expansion of project sites to the bluff tops or into tributary confluence deltas would allow the Corps to prevent problems and incorporate adjacent riparian areas into restoration projects.
  3. Reconnect and restore floodplains. The Corps created the Upper Mississippi River Comprehensive Plan and specifically selected a flood-management plan for the UMR basin that allows land buyouts and restores some floodplain connectivity, especially in the lower Illinois River and Middle Mississippi River regions. Flood-management efforts have not progressed past plan completion. Congress should appropriate funds to implement the Comprehensive Plan.


The Economic and Environmental Principles and Guidelines for Water and Related Land Resources Implementation Studies document — known simply as the Principles and Guidelines — outlines federal objectives for water resource planning. Authorized under WRDA, the Principles and Guidelines also explain how the Corps of Engineers must consider environmental impacts, evaluate costs and benefits, and select project alternatives.

There have been many changes to water resource needs over the past three decades stemming from newly recognized threats to water quality and quantity, a significant national shift away from large infrastructure projects, and a new focus on restoring natural ecosystems. However, the current Principles and Guidelines, last updated in 1983, fail to reflect advancements in economic and environmental sciences and technologies, new environmental laws, and changes to watershed management that accommodate multiple water resources users. In addition, the Principles and Guidelines emphasize short-term economic benefits over other national interests such as long-term sustainability of ecosystems.

Recognizing that the Principles and Guidelines enshrine an outdated process that pits economics against the environment, Congress directed the Corps in 2007 to revise the Principles and Guidelines with input from stakeholders. The White House Council on Environmental Quality took the lead and prepared new drafts in 2009 and 2013. However, these drafts have several critical flaws that must be resolved before they can move forward.

True Costs and Benefits: The 1983 Principles and Guidelines evaluate traditional economic measures — trade, commerce, and business — in monetary values while ignoring benefits derived from environmental improvements. Ecosystem services, which have demonstrated economic value, should be considered with other economic benefits. For example, wetlands help cleanse water through filtration, reducing the need for costly water treatment (such as nitrate removal) for drinking water downstream. In addition, when a river has access to its floodplain, flood damages are lessened throughout the watershed. A qualitative cost-benefit model should also be part of Principles and Guidelines reform to account for cultural and community resources or other unique attributes of a project site.

Project budget estimates must also accurately reflect real and projected costs. The actual costs of large navigation infrastructure projects currently underway or recently completed by the Corps have escalated more than 250 percent compared with original estimates. With an improved planning document, the Corps will have better guidance on planning projects with positive returns on investments.

A Smaller Scale: Many non-structural and small-scale solutions are less expensive and less environmentally harmful alternatives to large-scale construction projects. Several such measures — including barge traffic appointment scheduling, mooring cells, and switch boats — have been identified by the Corps as cheaper options to reduce barge lockage delays than large new locks. However, no such measures have been implemented to date. Any new draft of the Principles and Guidelines must prioritize use of small-scale and non-structural measures to protect the environment and taxpayers.

Recommendations: Revising the Principles and Guidelines provides an opportunity to protect people, wildlife, and the economy while effectively addressing the nation’s pressing water resources needs. The Principles and Guidelines should be updated to:

  1. Adopt a plan-selection process that considers both economic analysis and other national interests, such as conservation and restoration of large ecosystems, abandoning the current reliance solely on benefit-cost analysis. This will provide clear guidance for determining whether a project or program is an appropriate federal investment.
  2. Require the least environmentally damaging approach. Federal law and policy — and common sense — make clear that there is no justification for using a structural solution when a non-structural or restoration approach will solve the problem and protect the environment. Where structural solutions must be used, the guidelines should require use of the smallest scale project possible.
  3. Require use of up-to-date scientific and economic knowledge. The Principles and Guidelines are the basis for planning, evaluating, and designing Corps water resource development projects. The revised Principles and Guidelines must reflect current knowledge and understanding of ecosystem functions and the importance of those functions to public safety, fish and wildlife, and the economy.
  4. Ensure that Corps planning accounts for all project costs and benefits. All too often, projected benefits never materialize while costs increase substantially. The current calculation of project costs does not account for loss of natural resources services (such as water filtration and flood control through wetlands). It is also critical to base an evaluation of project costs on realistic funding levels and include lifetime costs (construction, maintenance, and decommissioning). Finally, the Corps should limit multi-year projects that cannot be fully funded prior to the projects’ start.

River of the Future

It is time to re-examine our concept of river management and stop expanding infrastructure that is environmentally damaging and economically unjustified. Congress should turn its attention to restoration projects that provide demonstrated environmental and economic benefits and maximize the efficiency of the navigation system through investments in maintenance and rehabilitation.

By implementing these recommendations through WRDA, Congress can maximize funding for habitat restoration, minimize largescale construction, and improve the planning process to better account for the costs and benefits of water resource projects. If this is accomplished, current and future generations will enjoy clean water, healthy habitats, and diverse natural resources.

Olivia Dorothy, IWLA Regional Conservation Coordinator

1, 2 McGuiness, D. (2000). A River That Works and a Working River: A Strategy for the Natural Resources of the Upper Mississippi River System. Rock Island, IL: Upper Mississippi River Conservation Committee.

3 Col. Mark Deschenes, Rock Island District Commander (June 6, 2013). Statements made at the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association quarterly meeting.

4 IMTS Capital Investment Strategy Team (2010). IMTS Capital Projects Business Model. Washington, DC: Inland Waterways Users Board.

5 Committee on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Water Resources Science, Engineering, and Planning (2012). Corps of Engineers Water Resources Infrastructure: Deterioration, Investment, or Divestment? Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

6 McGuiness, D. (2000). A River That Works and a Working River: A Strategy for the Natural Resources of the Upper Mississippi River System. Rock Island, IL: Upper Mississippi River Conservation Committee.

7 Lodge, D., and Finnoff, D. (2008). Invasive Species in the Great Lakes: Costing us our future. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.