St. Louis District Operations Chief Speaks On Rivers To Ag Group

Garrett Fleming, chief of the Operations Technical Policy and Physical Support Branch of the St. Louis Engineer District, gave a lunchtime talk May 14 on the importance and workings of the river system to about 90 members of the St. Louis Agribusiness Club in downtown St. Louis.   

The St. Louis Agribusiness Club was formed in 1981 to provide a forum for interaction and discussion of important agricultural issues. It has played a role in attracting agricultural companies and associations to the St. Louis area, and helps government leaders better understand the importance of agriculture. St. Louis is in the midst of becoming an ag-tech center, fueled by the rapid growth of agricultural technology startups financed by hundreds of millions of dollars of venture capital.

Fleming was introduced by Eric Bohl, director of public affairs for the Missouri Farm Bureau. He began by providing an overview of the St. Louis Engineer District, which is responsible for five locks and dams (four on the Mississippi River and one at the mouth of the Kaskaskia River) and five reservoirs. It oversees 300 miles of the Mississippi, 80 miles of the Illinois River, and 30 miles of the Kaskaskia, as well as 87 levee systems totaling 700 miles.

Of its 10 authorized missions, maintenance of navigation is the top one.  The district dredges about 10 million cubic yards of material annually, from St. Louis Harbor north. St. Louis is where many tows reconfigure for the open (lock-free) river south of the city.

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The importance of St. Louis, the third-busiest inland port, to farmers is evident, said Fleming, as 13.7 percent of all farm and food products and 60 percent of export grain move through the city.

The district coordinates with many partners in managing the river through reservoir releases and water level monitoring, he said.

Fleming mentioned the role of river engineering in reducing the number of dredges required to maintain the navigation channel. In 1988, Fleming said, the district operated five dredges; today it accomplishes the same tasks with two, thanks to wing dikes, chevron dikes and other features designed to encourages the river to self-scour, reducing the need for dredging.

He explained the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program (NESP), which could be restarted again after languishing for years due to underfunding.

Many of the questions from the agricultural audience concerned flooding and levee policy. One questioner suggested that when levees are flood-damaged, their position and placement can be improved during rebuilding. Fleming explained that levee heights are mandated by Congress; while the Corps monitors them, changes must come from there. The Corps assists local levee districts to stay within their mandated dimensions, although there can be some flexibility during a declaration of emergency. “Right now,” he said, “we’re trying to maintain the system we have.”

The district coordinates closely with local levee authorities and other partners and solicits public input in writing its Water Control Manual.

Fleming noted that all Corps projects, not just levees, must have a benefit/cost ratio (BCR) of greater than 1.0—that is, they must have more benefits than costs.