Congress is allocating billions of dollars to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for flood mitigation, construction and invasive species management, but the agency is still waiting for money to replace aging lock-and-dam systems on the Mississippi River.

Colonel Steven Sattinger oversees the Corps’ Rock Island District and notes many of the structures are well past their prime. “They do occasionally, pieces break, machinery breaks, but we have really great crews in the district who are out there 24/7 fixing it and keeping them open,” Sattinger says. “The longer you defer maintenance though, the more likely that someday it’ll fail in a way that we didn’t foresee.”

While many of the locks and dams on the Mississippi are 80 years old, they were only designed to last 50 years. Sattinger says dam failures could hamstring the shipping economy — and local communities that depend on it. “In the Upper Mississippi River, there’s no bypasses,” he says. “If one of our locks and dams fails, it has to be closed to traffic. The traffic would have to go on the land. There are no additional locks or dams or water routes to move that freight.”

A 2017 analysis by the Mid-America Freight Coalition estimates if a dam failure blocked barges, it could cost the industry $283 million in trucking costs, while causing $28 million damage to the roads.

(Thanks to Kate Payne, Iowa Public Radio/Photo courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers)