After years of authorization and studies but no funding to speak of, the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program is taking off, thanks to a big shot of funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
Congress formally authorized NESP in 2007, but its history stretches all the way back to Corps studies in 1989 and 1990 to address and evaluate ongoing problems to navigation, the congestion at the busiest locks, growing usage and an aging system. The Corps issued a feasibility report in 2004 that identified improvement projects, which Congress authorized.
At the time, the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service both stressed that the navigation study would set the future course for both commercial navigation and environmental integrity of the river system for years to come. As the UMRBA says on its website, “The resulting infrastructure investments will reaffirm the future of the river as a regulated pooled system. The significance of this decision cannot be overstated.” Since 2004, the Corps has spent $65 million on technical studies and designs for 47 projects.
The program, which includes 1,000 projects both large and small, will cost an estimated $7.9 billion over 50 years. The past few weeks have seen several groundbreakings of significant projects funded under NESP. On April 23, ground was broken for the first of a series of mooring cells near locks and dams that should have an outsized impact on savings in fuel costs, carbon emissions and bank damage.
On May 18, ground was broken for the long-awaited new 1,200-foot lock chamber at Lock and Dam 25 near Winfield, Mo. It’s the first new lock chamber of what will be a series of seven new 1,200-foot chambers added to existing 600-foot locks on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. NESP funds will also go toward various repairs to Upper Miss Locks and Dams 11, 13, 14, 15, 17, 20 and 21, according to Corps plans.
Another ground-breaking, embodying the ecosystem component of NESP, that also took place May 18, was of a $97.1 million fish passage at Lock 22.
Between fiscal years 2005 and 2020, the Corps allocated about $65 million in general investigation funds to support NESP activities. Not many outside the Corps and navigation interests paid attention to these studies, but they meant that when funding actually became available, the plans were vetted and ready to go.
All of the quiet, unrecognized behind-the-scenes work that kept NESP going—by organizations such as the Midwest Area River Coalition (MARC 2000) and Waterways Council Inc., along with the Corps of Engineers and congressional leaders—is coming to fruition.