While the record flooding in 2019 disrupted barge traffic throughout the inland waterways in the Midwest this spring and summer, some out-of-the-box thinking from the Corps of Engineers helped limit the number of days the Jerry F. Costello Lock and Dam was forced to close, keeping commerce flowing on the Kaskaskia River in southern Illinois for several additional days during the persistent high water.
The Kaskaskia River is a critical transportation link for several commodities, including scrubber stone, inbound coiled steel, and outbound grain and slag, moving 1.5 million tons per year. The river is navigable due to the Jerry F. Costello Lock and Dam, located right at the mouth of the Kaskaskia just upstream of where it joins the Mississippi.
Because of that location, it is greatly influenced by high water conditions on the Mississippi. The conditions this summer were set to have a significant impact on commodity flows on the Kaskaskia River, but the Corps took creative measures to minimize the impact.
In non-flood years, Jerry F. Costello Lock and Dam operates up to a river elevation of 380.5 feet. This elevation generally equates to 34.0 feet on the Chester, Ill., gauge. Above that level, it is usually closed and no barge traffic is allowed to lock through.
As a result, industries had to use backup plans to move their products to market—or they had to wait out the flood. Shippers requested a way to operate the lock at a higher level. That demand, coupled with the nature of this year’s flooding, led the Corps to re-evaluate its operations.
Corps officials finally determined that, with some additional labor and other operational changes, the lock could safely operate at a level of 382.5 feet, 2 feet higher than normal operating conditions.
The new elevation required that the lock stage four employees at strategic locations with fire hoses to be able to flush any debris out of the lock arm cavity to prevent debris from getting clogged in the mechanical lock arms. This solution allowed for 11 more operational days at the end of the first flood, shaved one day off the beginning of the second flood and allowed the lock to open four days earlier at the end of that second flood.
“Each flood operates a little different–the big difference this time that allowed us to make these changes was a direct result of the longevity of the flood,” said Courtney Wilson, assistant manager of the Kaskaskia Navigation Project for the Corps. “We were able to reassess our high-water operations that allowed the lock to operate 2 feet higher, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but in the grand scheme of things is an impressive achievement.”
“We applaud the Army Corps of Engineers for trying something out of the ordinary, particularly during a time a crisis, and we consider their actions to be a great triumph for both the Army Corps of Engineers and industry,” said Ed Weilbacher, general manager of the Kaskaskia Regional Port District, which jointly handles operations on the Kaskaskia River via a three-way partnership between the port, the Corps and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
“For the Corps to think beyond what it normally does to respond to industry needs was phenomenal and much appreciated. It demonstrated that adapting in this way yielded significant benefits for barge industry and helps to make the case for continued manpower modifications during future flooding and, hopefully, paves the way to get to a permanent fix.”
A recent study by the Corps further determined that it is feasible to modify the lock arms and operate at 382.96 feet without additional manpower or fire hoses to keep the debris away. A $1.5 million investment would allow a higher operation during future floods, also replacing the 40-plus-year-old arms with new ones that would last for decades to come.
The modified lock arms would be even more effective than the operational changes put in place this year. In all, the flood of 2019 caused the lock and dam to close for a total of 87 days, while the new operations policy allowed the lock and dam to operate 17 more days than it would have under the previous policy. Without the policy change, the closure could have stretched out for more than 100 days. With a permanent change to the lock arms, it is estimated the lock and dam could have been opened an additional four days for a total of 21 days, further minimizing the disruption for shippers.
“We commend the quick thinking of the Corps of Engineers, which in partnership with Kaskaskia Regional Port District reinforced the benefits of moving commodities on the St. Louis region’s inland waterways,” said Mary Lamie, executive director of the St. Louis Regional Freightway.