The long-anticipated closures of six of the aging locks and dams on the Illinois River began July 1 and so far, at least, have gone smoothly, according to those supervising and monitoring it. The closures are expected to extend into late October. They were coordinated to include as many repairs as possible within this closure window.
That timeline could change, of course, if any unexpected surprises are found by inspection teams. The Corps has promised that if there are any unforeseen failures at other locations, maintenance needs or construction requirements that occur between now and the scheduled closures in 2020 and 2023, the work will be coordinated to coincide with the scheduled closures as much as possible.
To group the closures and repair work together as much as possible may seem like common sense, and it is. But it almost didn’t happen that way. The original plan by the Corps was to stagger the closures over a much longer period. This plan could well have killed waterborne navigation on the Illinois Waterway forever, or at least for a very long time. Not only that, it would have cut Chicago off from the rest of the country by water for extended periods and significantly increased pollution in the region from the thousands of truck-trips it would have taken to substitute for the barge trips.
It took a lot of work by navigation industry representatives to make the implications clear to the Corps and persuade it to alter its plans. A series of behind-the-scenes conversations and negotiations enabled the two parties to hammer out the current plan, which includes a three-year recovery period for commercial navigation before further rehab work resumes in 2023.
Coordinating all those repair efforts at once is an incredible feat of logistics, but the Corps has been performing similar feats both in the U.S. and overseas for a long time. The repairs and rehab should extend the service life of the locks and dams for decades, providing tens of billions of dollars’ worth of economic and environmental benefits to U.S. farmers, for whom the waterway is a crucial grain corridor, for the energy industry, for Chicago-area residents and for the American economy in general.