WJ Editorial
WJ Editorial

Brandon Road Plan Is Second-Worst Option

The Rock Island Engineer District’s Final Preferred Plan for its Brandon Lock and Dam was released November 26, after much controversy and many delays. The array of measures designed to prevent the passage of Asian carp upriver is  deliberately redundant. The Rock Island District didn’t leave a single bell or whistle out of this kitchen-sink approach. That is reflected in its estimated cost, upped to almost $800 million from $275 million. Those costs are sure to balloon further if this plan is funded and built.

The navigation industry has repeatedly affirmed its support of the shared goal of keeping Asian carp out of Lake Michigan. Its contention that current non-structural approaches have been working is correct. The Fish and Wildlife Service stated in November 2016 that from 1999 to 2015, 236,171 barges passed through Brandon Road Lock and Dam with no evidence of Asian carp passing through with any of those barges.

You would never guess that, though, from recurring media frenzies. Last year, when a single mature Asian carp was found in the Illinois Waterway below T.J. O’Brien Lock and Dam, the media went wild with scare stories, and politicians issued a flurry of press releases and proposed actions.

Did those scare tactics influence the final report? Instead of standing tall for the least expensive and restrictive measures that would still do the job of keeping Asian carp out of Lake Michigan, the Corps did the politically expedient thing and put the ball in Congress’ court. The final plan certainly appears at first glance to give Great Lakes states and opponents of Asian carp everything they wanted, short of permanently closing the water link between the Mississippi River system and the Great Lakes.

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None of the proposed measures in the final report have been tried in a navigation channel before, except one: the four electric barriers currently in use. The report estimates that the new redundant electric barrier options, once fully operational, would increase delay times by three or four hours and admits that delays would likely snowball and stack tows. Even so, a note on page 227 of the final report warns, “The actual operating parameters of the electric barrier and of vessels through this area assuming an electric barrier is operating during vessel transit cannot be established until after construction, operation and testing of the system.” In other words, we have to fund and build it to find out the extent of the restrictions and delays. AWO members have already repeatedly raised serious safety questions, which have not been adequately answered, regarding the risks of electrified water near the barriers.

Besides ongoing unanswered safety questions, evidence suggests that costs will quickly mount for this portion of the proposed plan. The electrodes on the four currently operating electric barriers, designed in theory to last 25 years, have in practice been wearing out after 8 years. In early December, the Corps is scheduled to shut down the shipping channel to replace them, at a cost of millions of unbudgeted dollars. Those dollars are being provided instead by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. This unscheduled closure already imposes costs on the barge industry.

As for the other proposed measures, none have been given an individual risk analysis or comparative cost estimate. The latter type of analysis—that is, estimating the economic costs vs. benefits of a particular measure—is required by law for navigation projects, but not for carp-fighting measures, even though they affect navigation.

Such testing as has been done indicates that much more learning, and expense, lies ahead. For instance, the water jets in the tentatively selected draft were tested and found to be ineffective, so the updated final plan has bubble curtains instead.

Great Lakes states would be responsible for 20 percent of the funding, with Congress providing the other 80 percent. The financially strapped state of Illinois by law is the non-federal sponsor and administrator of the project, which means contributing a 35 percent cost-share of ongoing operational expenses.  Illinois officials, including outgoing Gov. Bruce Rauner, have repeatedly expressed caution about having to shoulder the cost-share for expensive structural options.

Whether Congress will fund any or all of these proposals remains to be seen. Most of the features of this proposal are unneeded and would unnecessarily burden the navigation industry, add to truck traffic and pollution and crimp the region’s economy.