In 1983, famed ocean explorer and oceanographer Jacques Cousteau sailed his research vessel Calypso down the Mississippi River, sparking a conversation that continues to this day about rivers, their health and what they mean to a healthy ecosystem. Cousteau said his goal was to “‘stand back,’ so to speak, and examine how the river is used and what are the benefits and costs of this grand interaction.” The resulting film was broadcast in 100 countries, as well as at the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans.
The journey and film helped spread the recognition that the levees, locks and dams that contained the Mississippi River, controlling its floods and enabling a river navigation network unmatched in the world, also imposed costs on the environment. Taming and harnessing the Mississippi River meant reducing the wetlands that used to surround it, which in the past were watered by periodic floods. Narrowing and focusing its waters also carried nutrients into the Gulf of Mexico that affected its waters.
In 1986, Congress declared the Upper Mississippi River System “a nationally significant ecosystem and a nationally significant commercial navigation system,” a declaration that linked the two functions of the river. This linkage was enthusiastically embraced by navigation supporters.
In 2007, Congress authorized the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program, which linked navigation and ecosystem improvements along the Upper Mississippi River System—the locking part of the river—and a portion of the Illinois Waterway, and authorized funding them from the same “bucket” (although actual funding, unfortunately, did not immediately follow).
The navigation challenges came from the fact that the locks and dams of the Upper Mississippi and Illinois River were not keeping up with advances in river transportation. The 600-foot chambers were too small to accommodate modern tows. The NESP included construction of new 1,200-foot locks at seven of the most congested locks—20, 21, 22, 24 and 25 on the UMR and at La Grange and Peoria on the Illinois River.
The new locks, constructed alongside the existing 600-foot locks, would enable a 1,200-foot tow to pass without separating its barges, which doubles or even triples the amount of passage time. Also, the new locks adjacent to the original ones allow for two-way traffic and won’t shut down all riverine transportation during times of routine maintenance. Congress further authorized smaller-scale efficiency improvements that will provide immediate benefits upon their implementation.
NESP’s authorization includes $1.717 billion for a 15-year effort to restore the river’s ecological integrity and ability to support fish and wildlife, plus $10.42 million annually for monitoring. Ongoing funding from the Upper Mississippi River Restoration (UMRR) program is imperative until NESP funding surpasses this annual investment for ecosystem restoration.
The Waterways Council Inc. is one of NESP’s main advocates. The tours it regularly organizes, like the recent one of the Mel Price Lock and Dam, the Audubon Center just across the river and Lock and Dam 25, help keep the value of this program in front of the public and elected officials.
Ecosystem health is now a permanent part of the national consciousness. At the same time, the world’s economy and trade networks are re-orienting. Challenges to the postwar global trade order from disease and war, and disruptions to food networks and supplies, are making the United States’ agricultural productivity and river networks more important than ever—to the rest of the world as well as to our own economy. There has never been a better or more urgent time to continue the work of NESP in adding 1,200-foot locks to aging lock and dam systems to ensure green transportation of the cargoes that help keep the world fed, while continuing to improve the ecosystem health of one of the world’s great river arteries.