According to Tom Heinold, acting chief of the operations division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Rock Island District, it's only a matter of time.
"Most of the locks and dams were constructed in the 1930s and were expected to have a 50-year design life, so do the math. We're way beyond that point," Heinold said. "We're using duct tape and chewing gum to keep a lot of our stuff together."
When a major interstate bridge sustains catastrophic damage, such as the recent collapse of a span in Washington state, concerns are raised about maintenance of the nation's vital transportation infrastructure. Potential failure of one or more of the aging 27 locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi River pose a similar disruption to a major transportation artery.
"A lot of the motors, valves and gates that we have on our facilities are original," he said. "If you have a dam gate that's been in the water for 80 or 90 years, some of that structure is gone by now, even with regular sandblasting and painting."
More than 500 million tons of goods — from corn, soybeans and fertilizer to coal and scrap steel — move each year between Minneapolis and the Gulf of Mexico. The drought last fall that dropped the Mississippi to historic low levels cost shippers as much as $7 billion over a two-month period and affected 8,000 jobs each month.
"The near closure of shipping on the Mississippi really underscored to a lot of folks, particularly those here in Washington, D.C., the value of the waterway system," said Debra Colbert, senior vice president of the Arlington, Va.-based Waterways Council, which represents barge and other river interests.
Click on map points for more information on dam and lock.
"It's not just the corn, soybeans, wheat and other goods moving down the river for export. It's also the fertilizer and other inputs moving upriver in preparation for spring planting.
"Until there is a catastrophic failure — and it is coming — we need to stop taking this important system for granted."
Heinold contended that a proverbial three-legged stool is needed to keep the nation's river navigation infrastructure viable.
"The first leg is regular operation and maintenance, which is things like greasing bearings and painting things that tend to rust," Heinold said. "We do routine maintenance every day to keep our locks and dams operational.
The second leg, which is not funded by Congress, is a major overhaul of the locks and dams. Heinold said that would include new motors, dam gates, valves, chains and other components required to extend the design life of the aging structures.
"The third leg would be improvements, like the Navigation Ecosystem Sustainment Program," Heinold said. "NESP is an authorized program that involves major new construction and environmental mitigation or restoration.
"Congress authorized NESP in the 2007 Water Resources Development Act, but not a single construction dollar has been appropriated. The Corps of Engineers is needs the authority for a project as well as an appropriation before we can get anything done.
"It will require about $2.37 billion to get our infrastructure to a level where it is sustainable for the long term."
The current funding source for major river construction projects is a 50-50 split between the federal government and the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. The latter derives its revenue from a 20-cent-per-gallon fuel tax on shippers.
Colbert said barge operators have proposed raising the tax by 6 to 9 cents per gallon, which also is supported by shippers. The federal Office of Management and Budget has proposed a different funding mechanism, instituting a "locking or per vessel fee" that it claims would lessen the impact on the nation's taxpayers.
"There is neither support for it across the board in Congress, nor in the industry," Colbert said.
"In the Pittsburgh area, barge operators moving coal would have to pay nine locking fees. That would lead to sharply higher electricity costs for consumers."
The U.S. Senate on May 15 passed the bipartisan Water Resources Development Act by a vote of 83 to 14. Colbert said a similar bill, pending in the U.S. House of Representatives, includes several appropriations provisions to provide critical funding for updating and repairing existing infrastructure.
Reps. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, and Tom Latham, R-Iowa, are co-sponsors of WAVE 4, also known as the Waterways Are Vital for the Economy, Energy, Efficiency and Environment of 2013. Section 9 of the bill would raise the fuel tax to 26 cents per gallon "after 2013" or beginning Jan. 1, 2014.
The Soy Transportation Coalition, comprised of 11 state soybean associations, the American Soybean Association and United Soybean Board, support WAVE 4 in the belief that it is more acceptable to lawmakers than a massive new lock construction measure.
"A predictably good system is better than a hypothetical one," STE Executive Director Mike Steenhoek told those gathered in February for a Mississippi River Trade Infrastructure meeting in Davenport.
Barge operators and shippers ultimately would like the existing 600-foot locks replaced with 1,200-foot facilities. That would eliminate the need to split a 15-barge tow in half, which Heinold said is time consuming, more costly and potentially dangerous for barge crews.
Each new 1,200-foot lock would cost about $377 million, roughly the same as nine major rehabilitation projects. The last new lock constructed on the Upper Mississippi was the Melvin Price Locks and Dam 26 at Alton, Ill.Construction began in 1979, the main 1,200-foot lock opened in 1990, and the full structure was completed in 1994.