Illinois Waterway Conference Includes Navigation Focus

The Rock Island Engineer District’s “Discover the Illinois Waterway Virtual Forum” October 29 focused on inland navigation along with flood risk management and environmental sustainability.

Col. Steve Sattinger, the district’s commander, said the district had originally planned an in-person forum that would have included a tour of the recently reopened Peoria Lock and Dam.

“I wanted to celebrate what, for the Corps of Engineers, has been the largest investment in the Illinois Waterways since its inception,” he said, adding, “But it’s 2020, and things aren’t always going according to plan this year.”

He noted that more than $200 million was spent on five locks this year. Closures began in July, but all five had reopened by October 29.

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Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, who also chairs the Illinois River Coordinating Committee, welcomed the more than 60 virtual attendees.

“It’s clear that the waterways give Illinois character,” she said. “They also play a vital role in the state’s economy and serve as a natural resource for the residents of our state.”

Stratton mentioned the importance of stopping the spread of Asian carp into Lake Michigan, noting that they pose a significant risk to Illinois’ $7 billion fishing industry.

Tom Heinold, chief of operations for the Rock Island district, moderated the session on inland navigation, asking questions  of several panelists. He began by asking Matt Coffelt, project manager for the Rock Island District, about what was needed to execute the consolidated closures.

“It really took a pretty big planning effort starting about three years in advance of the closures,” Coffelt said. Planning involved coordinating with stakeholders and then, once an initial plan was determined, reaching out and gathering feedback to ensure the least disruption possible.

Coordination was especially important between the district and the various contractors.

“At several of these sites we had work we had to do to support the contractors’ efforts, and that took daily communication on site to make sure everyone knew where we were at, to maintain our schedule and to open up on time,” Coffelt said.

The work was not without some challenges. Heinold noted there were so many Asian carp in the lock chamber at Starved Rock at one point that crews couldn’t pump down the chamber because the fish were clogging the pumps.

Jeremy Tardy, chairman of the Illinois River Carriers Association’s Captains’ Committee, offered kudos to the team for the challenges overcome and for accomplishing the work in a timely way, saying it was impressive to him how it all was managed.

“It was quite a hurdle this year with having to cease navigation on the waterway to allow time to have all these projects completed,” he said.

He noted the maintenance and rehabilitations were “very much needed.” “I know the navigation industry deeply appreciates all the work that was done,” he said.

Tardy also said he was very excited for the reliability of the system moving forward and appreciates all the work done by the team members.

Heinold noted that, although the locks are back open, other work at the projects continues.

“We’re working as hard as we can to get back to as normal as we can as soon as we can,” he said.

Heinold asked Lynn Muench, senior vice president-regional advocacy for The American Waterways Operators, what others could do to help improve the process of lock modernization and other necessary items related to the Illinois Waterway.

Muench said one of the largest was making sure key items supported by Waterways Council Inc. (WCI) make their way into the final version of the 2020 Water Resources Development Act currently awaiting resolution through a conference committee. Muench would like to see the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF) project cost-share formula revised to 75 percent from the general fund of the Treasury and 25 percent from the industry-funded IWTF from the current 50/50 split.

“I think that cost-share change would be huge in making sure the benefits get to the nation earlier with probably less cost,” Muench said.

The bills passed in both the House of Representatives and Senate both allow a 65/35 split. The Senate’s version makes the split permanent. The House version sunsets the split after seven years with a provision to continue the 65/35 funding for any project begun before the sunset.

Muench also talked about the continued need for dredge funding and replacing of old equipment. Congress also needs to fund new Coast Guard cutters, she said.

“These Social Security-aged vessels are not doing the job, breaking down routinely, with lots of unscheduled downtime,” she said.

Paul Rohde of WCI talked about the importance of continued advocacy for construction funding for the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability (NESP) funding in the Fiscal Year 2020 Work Plan. Those interested in plugging into WCI’s advocacy program can text the word “locks” to 52886 and be directed to WCI’s pre-written letters that can be sent as is or edited as needed before being sent to the letter-writer’s congressional representatives.

B.J. Murray, section chief of the Illinois Department of Transportation’s Marine and Aviation Transportation Program Planning, also talked about state-level efforts.

For the first time, he said, Illinois has included maritime interests in its long-range transportation planning. It has utilized some competitive freight funds for port projects and is doing port master plans at some of its nine public port districts. Significantly, he said, $150 million has been set aside for port capital improvements, including $40 million of that for the Cairo port terminal project.

Heinold also asked Coffelt to look ahead at the work that remains to be completed during a second Illinois Waterway closure as soon as 2023. Coffelt said the Rock Island District is only beginning to develop an initial plan about what to include. The priority will be looking at what sites need additional work, and that will include work at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam that was not completed in 2020, he said. He also noted that additional work could include sector gears at Starved Rock Lock and Dam and electrical work at Marseilles Lock and Dam.

“The biggest challenge tends to be trying to get all the funding lined up that we need to do this kind of work,” Coffelt said.

For that to happen, Coffelt said funding must be allocated in 2021 and 2022.

After an initial plan is developed, he said, the Corps will reach out to industry “and try to make adjustments where it makes sense.”

That could include delaying the closure to as late as 2024 to allow potential Asian carp barriers to be installed as part of the effort to prevent the carp from entering Lake Michigan in large numbers, he said. The U.S. House of Representatives’ Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed legislation in July that includes the addition of a carp barrier at Brandon Road Lock and Dam. It would include an engineered channel with an acoustic fish deterrent, air bubble curtain, electric barrier, flushing lock and boat ramps, but that plan is estimated to cost an estimated $831 million, including contingencies. The high price tag has experts looking for innovative and potentially less costly solutions.

Following the next round of consolidated closures, Heinold said the goal is not to have any extended, 90-day closures of locks and dams along the Illinois Waterway for 20 to 25 years.