Screenshot from April 26 webinar shows current plan for Brandon Road Lock.
Asian carp

Brandon Road Project Still Awaits Funding Agreement

While the design team continues working on plans at Brandon Road Lock and Dam for a multi-layer system to prevent the spread of invasive Asian carp into the Great Lakes, a project partnership agreement still has not been signed.

Without the signed agreement between the Corps of Engineers and the state of Illinois, the current funding mechanism will be exhausted by the end of June, Andrew Leichty, who oversees the project as senior project manager for the Rock Island Engineer District, said in a quarterly webinar April 26 to update the public on the project’s progress.

Project Partnership Issues

Earlier this year, the Rock Island District received $1.5 million from the states of Illinois and Michigan as part of an accelerated funding measure to keep the Brandon Road Interbasin Project moving forward with engineering and design. That allowed the planning for the first phase of the project, dubbed Increment I-A, to continue. Leichty said the increment should be completed to the 95 percent planning specifications level by the end of June, when current funding is due to expire.

Increment 1-A includes what Leichty called a gauntlet of measures to prevent invasive carp from swimming through the lock, located on the Des Plaines River near Joliet, Ill., and into Lake Michigan. They include an automated barge clearing deterrent, a bubble deterrent, an acoustic deterrent, support buildings and an upstream boat launch.

Later increments would include construction of an electric deterrent, but Leichty said plans call for that system to be shut off when a vessel is navigating through the engineered channel in order to ensure mariner safety.

To access additional funding after the $1.5 million in accelerated funding is spent, the project partnership agreement must be signed.

Loren Wobig, representing the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, explained some of the issues that must be overcome for the agreement to be signed. They include concerns about project costs, land rights and state regulatory permitting.

“We still are not seeing eye to eye on several terms there, but we remain in communication with the Corps of Engineers on working to try to resolve that,” he said.

One issue is that the riverbed on the lower half of the project site is privately owned, he said. The state is continuing to discuss land acquisition options with the private property owner, including acquisition of the entire river channel in the project vicinity, he said. Additionally, he said, Illinois is also exploring options to avoid acquiring property on the right descending bank entirely.

While it is a partnership in cooperation with the federal government, Illinois also requires the project to meet the requirements of all state permits and to avoid, minimize and mitigate any public water impacts.

Future Funding Needs

The Brandon Road Interbasin Project is funded 90 percent by the federal government and 10 percent by the nonfederal sponsor, Illinois, although Michigan is also contributing funding toward the local match.

Leichty noted that Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has proposed $50 million in his budget for fiscal year 2024 for the project. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has asked for $64 million. Both allocations are in the hands of their respective state legislatures.

“That would go a long way toward completion,” Leichty said.

Over the past few months, the Corps has completed a new analysis that has shown the project cost has grown, although the Corps has also made changes to initial designs to cut total spending as much as possible.

The total estimated project cost previously was $1,014,696,000, including 65 percent of funds reserved for contingencies. The new project cost is estimated to be $1,146,093,000, which includes a 52 percent contingency level.

Changes to the plan have included:

• Reducing the size of the engineered channel from 2,000 feet by 200 feet to 1,200 feet by 110 feet.

• Reducing the size of the acoustic array from 220 by 200 feet to 220 by 110 feet.

• Reducing the size of the electric deterrent from 220 feet wide to 110 feet wide.

• Moving control buildings and staging to the left descending bank instead of the right descending bank.

• Excavating a smaller quantity of channel rock, with the majority used to build out the left descending bank instead of being hauled off site.

• Starting construction in 2024 instead of 2022,  with a six-to-eight year construction period.

• Reducing navigation restrictions and closures so that instead of having them throughout the construction period, there will be periodic navigation restrictions and five, 45-day closures to remove rock and and do necessary construction in the dry.

Navigation Industry Concerns

The district has continued regular meetings with members of the navigation industry to discuss methods of construction that would minimize the impacts to navigation, Leichty said. The Corps now expects to construct increment I-A of the project “in the wet.” Increments II and III would include “in the dry” construction periods that the Corps believes would require five 45-day closures, he said, adding, “That’s certainly not set in stone, but that’s a starting point to talk.” He later added that there might be a possibility of eliminating one or two of the five closures and that they might be able to be shorter, in some cases.

None of the closures related to the interbasin project have been scheduled so far, he said, as the Corps continues to plan out the project. However, several major lock closures are planned  this year as part of separate work on the Illinois Waterway. According to information on the Rock Island District website, from June 1 to September 30, the Corps of Engineers will close Brandon Road, Dresden Island and Marseilles locks and dams. Brandon Road and Dresden Island will both have new upper miter gates installed and gate machinery replaced. Dresden Island will also have valve and electrical system replacement. Electrical crossover work will be performed at Marseilles.

During a question and answer period, some of those in attendance expressed concerns about the potential impacts of lock closures on the industry.

“I’m happy to hear that you’re going to try to do some [construction] in the wet if it decreases the amount of time that navigation is impacted, assuming it doesn’t turn out like the ‘in the wet’ at Omsted, which I’m sure you’ve heard more than once,” said Lynn Muench, senior vice president for regional advocacy for The American Waterways Operators. “But I’m still pretty concerned, and I think most of the navigation industry is pretty concerned, and our customers, about the number of days you’re talking about to construct this project and that it will essentially destroy reliability on that part of the Illinois River if it goes forward as you have it planned out right now,” she said.

She also asked if the engineered channel would be needed if the project’s electric barrier were eliminated.

Leichty said the bubble and acoustic deterrents also work better in an engineered channel.

When Muench asked about how much of the project’s cost is for the engineered channel, Leichty said he didn’t have figures immediately available but knew that concrete work made up more than half of the project cost.

“I just think we need to think a lot harder and a lot smarter about how not to impact navigation the way this plan looks like it’s going to,” Muench said.

Additionally, Muench commented that she did not believe the project makes sense overall from a scientific perspective as the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study (GLMRIS) found that invasive species currently in the Great Lakes had the potential to migrate into the river system.

“We should be much more worried about things coming out of the Great Lakes, coming into the rivers if we carry invasive species than the other way around,” she said.

GLMRIS program manager Jeff Zeurcher was attending the webinar and responded, saying that there were risks with the construction of the project that the Corps is continuing to explore, including seeking opportunities to complete the “two-way study” on how best to prevent invasive species from entering the Mississippi River Basin system from the Great Lakes.

“We are prepared to get after that as soon as we are given funds and authorization to move forward on that,” he said.

Robert Hirschfeld, a senior water policy specialist at Prairie Rivers Network in Champaign, Ill., said he was familiar with the GLMRIS study and also believes the two-way study should be completed.

Martin Hettel, vice president of government affairs for American Commercial Barge Line, emphasized the potential impact on transportation during lock closures, not just to the navigation industry but to the country as a whole.

Given that the lock moves about 13 million tons of cargo annually, that would displace 1.6 million tons of cargo for every 45-day closure, he said. He estimated that would add 1,425 truckloads per day on the highway system during each closure.

Hettel said he would like to see the Corps do what it can to shorten any lock closures.

Col. Jesse Curry, commander of the Rock Island Engineer District, thanked participants for all their comments.

“I would encourage all navigation interests to stay at the table and help us work through this problem together,” he said.

Next Steps

Moving forward, Leichty said once a Project Partnership Agreement is signed, the Corps still must have plans and specifications complete to award a construction contract.

It will also be necessary to have construction funds appropriated by both the federal government and non-federal sponsor and for necessary permits and real estate to be acquired.

He emphasized that the Corps would continue to meet with industry, and that modeling will also continue to determine best practices for operation of the barriers since there is no other project like the Brandon Road Interbasin Project anywhere in the country.