The History of Transportation
on the Mississippi River

Part 7
by Richard Moore, IWLA

The course of future Mississippi River management may be determined in the next year. The US Army Corps of Engineers is nearing completion of a multi-year study dedicated to determining the demand for waterborne transportation in the region over the next 50 years. The results of their study will help Congress decide which of a number of possible improvement to the system warrant the investment of public funds.

Proponents of spending large amounts of money to upgrade the locks on the river point to the fact that they are now more than 60 years old. They were designed for barge traffic that was much different then that which the river sees today. Most of the lock chambers on the river are 600 feet long, while the typical string of barges is nearly twice that length. In order to pass through the locks, tow operators must separate the barges into two groups and pass each on through separately. This increased the time it takes to "lock through," raising the cost of barge transportation. During peak traffic periods at some of the busier locks, tows must wait for hours before they can lock through.

On the other side of the issue are conservationists who believe that the river is suffering from high levels of barge traffic and that improving the system to allow more barges to navigate the river will only worsen an already dire situation. The point to the loss of productive backwater and side channel habitats as evidence of the river's decline. And while it is true that we have much to learn about the Mississippi's ecology, most of the available evidence supports Conservationists' claims that the river is getting worse over time.

The Corps sits at the center of this debate. In their planning process, they must consider both the economic value of the river's transportation industry and its value as a natural resource. Congress has directed them to incorporate these competing considerations into any plans they develop for the future river management. They have been instructed to be fair and objective, and make recommendations to Congress based on the very best science available.

In the real world, however, situations are rarely as straightforward as they seem at first. There are powerful political forces swirling around the scientific and technical questions facing Mississippi River planners. Lobbyists on both sides of the issue attempt to influence Congress, which in turn may put pressure on the Corps to respond in ways that might compromise the objectivity of their investigations. Constituent groups who benefit from Corps projects may also pressure the agency directly.

Many observers suggest that the Corps' navigation study on the Upper Mississippi has been influenced in precisely this way. Throughout the course of the navigation study, there have been many instances where participants, including state agencies and private organizations representing conservation interests, have believed that the Corps was structuring the study to justify large-scale improvements on the Upper Mississippi.

Like so many other decisions facing government today, the Upper Mississippi situation is cofounded by the fact that there is no one correct solution to the problems addressed by the navigation study. Of the hundreds of individual questions that must be answered before a decision is made, many of them rely on guesses about conditions in the future or rely on imperfect scientific understanding. Planners must exercise their best professional judgment based on their current understanding. This leaves plenty of room for argument.

On the Upper Mississippi, the conflict has been framed by two fundamental questions. First, how severe would the impacts of more barges on the river actually be? Second, how economically important is barge transportation likely to be in the future? Congress, the ultimate decision maker in this situation, must decided if these questions have been answered correctly, and must then decide what course of action is best for the nation.

Any discussion of the economy of the Upper Midwest must include agriculture, so it is not surprising that the most critical component of the debate over Mississippi River navigation involves the shipment of huge quantities of grain, primarily corn and soybeans, down the river for export to other nations. Resolution of the today's arguments over the river's future will be determined by the shape of tomorrow's agricultural economy.

to be continued...

History of Mississippi River Transportation
Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 8 - Part 9 - Part 10

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