The History of Transportation
on the Mississippi River

Part Five

By Richard Moore, IWLA

The Alton Lock controversy had barely been settled when the Corps began planning a second lock at the same location. They were anticipating a substantial increase in traffic volumes and wanted to make improvements immediately. A Master Plan for the Mississippi was developed, recommending the second lock and also recommending that Congress exempt the project from the National Environmental Policy Act. The exemption would allow the Corps to build the second lock without studying its environmental impacts or preparing and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

Congress authorized the second lock in 1985, but declined to waive the requirement for an EIS. Working with other federal agencies, including the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This process was closely monitored by the Conservation Community on the Upper Mississippi.

In completing the EIS, the Corps discovered that they lacked the scientific information to determine the environmental impacts of a second lock at Alton. The state of our understanding of the river's ecology simply did not allow the Corps prepare an adequate EIS.

Wanting to build the second lock as soon as possible, the Corps, EPA and FWS worked out a compromise: the Corps would build its lock while they continued to study the environmental effects of barge traffic. In an agreement signed by the Corps, FWS and EPA, the Corps committed to developing and implementing a detailed plan of study to look into the second lock's effects on the Mississippi's fish and wildlife resources.

In 1988, the Corps met with FWS, EPA, the Izaak Walton League, the Sierra Club, and representatives from the States of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri to determine the direction that the plan of study should take. All parties agreed that the Corps should conduct a comprehensive study of the effects of river traffic on the Mississippi River environment, and that study should include the entire river, not just the area around the Alton locks. The also agreed that the Corps would be responsible for repairing the environmental damage that the increased traffic would cause.

The Corps completed the plan of study in 1991, and almost immediately began to develop plans for longer locks at other sites on the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. These plans developed into the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway Navigation Study, the very study that continues today.

In their quest to expand more facilities, the Corps soon modified its commitment to the plan of study it made in 1988. Conservationists on the river were told that the Corps would incorporate the previous agreement into the new navigation study.

Conservationists objected, saying that the Corps shouldn't be planning new locks when they hadn't even honored the agreements they made when they built the second Alton lock. The Corps' response to these objections was to kill the developing spirit of cooperation between the competing interests on the river and strain relations between the Corps and the Conservation Community for years to come.

According to the Corps' lawyers, the only commitment they made was to develop the plan of study. The did not, they concluded, commit to carrying out the studies or mitigating any environmental impacts. Other parties to the agreement knew otherwise. But the agreement was worded in such a way the no matter what the Corps had actually agreed to at that meeting in 1988, the weren't legally obligated to do anything more than they'd done already.

This fateful decision has cast a pall over the current navigation study. Conservationists no longer feel that they can take the Corps at its word. So the discussions about new navigation improvements have been tinged with controversy. And what started out in an atmosphere of suspicion in the early 1990s has grown steadily worse as the Corps, according to conservationists, has thrown its energy into planning for new construction projects while virtually ignoring their responsibilities to the environment.

The Upper Mississippi River navigation study is a case study in conflict, a classic case of a collision between competing users of a shared resource. The debate over the future of the Mississippi River continues, with compromise nowhere on the horizon.

to be continued...

History of Mississippi River Transportation
Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 6 - Part 7 - Part 8 - Part 9 - Part 10

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