River Closures Reveal Impact Lock or Dam Failure Could Have on Soybean Industry

Staff Writer
Aledo Times Record

Inland waterways provide vital transportation routes for the state's soybeans to reach customers. This summer's drought has limited full use of the river system. Similarly, a recent study partially funded by the Illinois soybean checkoff illustrates the significant impact a lock or dam failure could have on the state's soybean industry.

"Current severe drought conditions help illustrate what the study's researchers predicted could happen with lock or dam failures," says Mark Sprague, soybean farmer from New Canton, Ill., and ISA director. "Well-maintained infrastructure is vital to ensure Illinois soybeans reach their destinations efficiently and remain competitive in domestic and international markets. We can't stop Mother Nature, but we can stop locks from crumbling into the rivers."

Slow going on waterways

Waterways Council, Inc. Vice President Paul Rohde says the ongoing drought has challenged lower Mississippi River water levels, which are likely to reach or drop below the low water levels of 1988. On Aug. 20, low water levels led the U.S. Coast Guard to close an 11-mile stretch of the river near Greenville, Miss., where multiple barges have run aground this summer.

According to The American Waterways Operators, the reported closures cost towing companies at least $10,000 per day.

"Most rivers are open, but hindered, right now," says Rohde. "Low water conditions create significant operational challenges for towing vessels throughout the system. Lighter loads, additional trips and restricted or closed channels are challenging boats, barges and the products that require waterways to reach their destinations."

Yet, waterways are still the most efficient, cost-effective way to move large soybean quantities. "Rivers are the low-cost provider of moving America's harvest to market," he says. Up to 89 percent of soybeans leaving the port of Mississippi arrive by barge, notes the study. "Locks and dams help maintain water levels on the upper Mississippi, which is an advantage we lack on the lower Mississippi. Whether challenges arise from low water or from 80-year old infrastructure, reliable river transport requires ongoing management and investment to gain the benefits."

A ticking time bomb?

More than 1,100 miles of navigable waterways border or pass through Illinois, allowing more than three million tons of soybeans to be transported via water in a typical season. "Locks and Dams: A Ticking Time Bomb for Agriculture?" reports more than half of locks and dams on the waterways have been in place for 50 years or more, with at least five percent 100 years old. Many are in disrepair or in need of upgrades to accommodate modern-sized barge tows.

Researchers examined the condition of locks on key segments of the nation's waterways, analyzed use, determined which are most likely to suffer catastrophic failure, and estimated impacts at the local level based on projected freight flows. They found failures anywhere in the system could lead to increased time and costs needed to move goods to market. The deteriorating condition of Illinois locks and dams has the potential to compromise soybean exports and cost farmers more money in transportation through losses in efficiency and productivity. A failure at the most vulnerable area assessed, the LaGrange Lock on the Illinois River, would:

• Affect areas around such cities as Joliet, Bloomington, Kankakee, LaSalle and Streator.

• Cause a $4.3 million loss to the area during a three-month period.

• Reduce the local price of soybeans by $2.45 per ton, or 7.4 cents per bushel.

The study also was supported by the United Soybean Board and Soy Transportation Coalition and is available at www.unitedsoybean.org/media-center/background-materials/.