A taxpayer group and the National Wildlife Federation held a teleconference this morning to criticize plans to rebuild the system of locks and dams that move barges up and down the Mississippi River. Kate Costenbader is with the Wildlife Federation. She says the Upper Mississippi River Navigation Expansion Project is ranked fourth-worst by the group’s “worst of the worst.” Costenbader says the river region is an important one environmentally.The river’s floodplain includes two-and-a-half million acres of forest, wetland, farm and grassland habitat and hosts up to 40-percent of the country’s migratory waterfowl traveling past it as well as many species of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and mussels. Costenbader says it’s harmed the ecosystem to use the river for boating and shipping, especially building a series of locks and dams that let barges haul cargo on the river. She says the 37 locks and dams on the upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers have transformed free-flowing rivers into a series of “navigation pools” she says have created a “step of stairs” from St. Louis to Minneapolis and Chicago. Steve Ellis with Taxpayers for Common Sense says government money shouldn’t go to replace the aging locks, which is planned because they can’t allow bigger barge flotillas to pass through. He calls it wasting more than two-Billion dollars to expand locks even though barge traffic levels are declining. Mark Boerkrem with the Mississippi River Basin Alliance says the group opposes modernizing locks because they’re getting less use by barge shippers. He says the Corps’ own data shows between 1992 and 2002 upper Mississippi River traffic was down 13-percent, and in those locks targeted for expansion or replacement, traffic was down by one-quarter. That sounds about right to Larry Daily, who runs the only Iowa-owned barge service on the river. He says they looked at only one lock, number 25 which is where the Illinois enters the Mississippi, but he says the reason traffic’s down is because it closes every year for needed maintenance on the old locks. Daily compares it to never maintaining the highways and arguing that the bad roads don’t have much traffic. He says river shipping is important for Iowa farm products like corn, soybeans and ethanol.He says they haul coal for power plants of MidAmerican and Central Iowa Power as well as the University, Iowa State and U-N-I, and also lots of cement-making material and road salt shipped from Louisiana because it’s cheap to move it by barge. Daily has an example of the comparative costs of shipping on the riverway. There’s a product shipped to a client of his in St. Paul, Minnesota, that costs 60-dollars for a one-ton load to drive a truckload from New Orleans to St. Paul, and the same product moved by barge costs about eight dollars. Daily says the reason for the rebuilding project is the larger size of today’s caravans of loaded barges, called “tows.” Tow is a term from steamboat days when they’d gather a group and term it a “tow” of barges, which is why it’s called a towboat, not a push-boat, but the locks were built for the small steamboats of half a century ago, which weren’t much like today’s high-speed diesel engines which can push larger tows. Daily says as far as the environmental complaints, it’s been a long time since the locks were built.People tend to forget that before the systems of locks and dams was built, the river would almost dry up in drought years — and he refers visitors to the photos at the Rock Island office of the Corps of Engineers, which show mule teams dragging wagons across the dry riverbed.
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