Mississippi proves mighty test for infrastructure idea: Iowa asks for better locks and dams, but no way to pay for it

Michael DeRusha is the lockmaster at Upper St. Anthony Falls lock and dam in downtown Minneapolis. He admits that he can get emotional when talking about the day the facility closed for use as a lock in 2015. It opened 1963. (Michael S. Williamson/Washington Post)
Michael DeRusha is the lockmaster at Upper St. Anthony Falls lock and dam in downtown Minneapolis. He admits that he can get emotional when talking about the day the facility closed for use as a lock in 2015. It opened 1963. (Michael S. Williamson/Washington Post)

The Mississippi runs the spine of America, touching 10 states and draining waters from 21 more, a vast waterway with a rich mythology, a sometimes powerful beauty and an always alarming propensity to flood.

Nearly 30 locks and dams hold back water in the river’s upper reaches. Every river bend to the south is lined by concrete to slow the water’s corrosive force. Levees corset thousands of miles of riverbanks and 170 bridges run above. All of this is aimed at permitting barge traffic and protecting farms and cities. Most of it is decrepit.

Now, with President Donald Trump’s push for a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, there are hopes of billions to fix up the Mississippi. Iowa, for instance, lists modernizing Upper Mississippi locks and dams among its top five infrastructure priories for Trump.

But there are clashes over which projects to pursue first, and no agreement on how to pay for any of it. Moreover, a move to tame one portion of the river can create chaos for people somewhere else along its 2,350-mile path,

“It doesn’t behave like it used to,” said John Carlin, a towboat pilot who has worked the Hannibal, Mo., riverfront for over 40 years. “Seems like it doesn’t take much to get out of control.”

Infrastructure is a bureaucratic word, a way of describing human efforts to impose order on nature. More than almost anything government does, the effects of the infrastructure it builds can be felt for generations.

Some river watchers perked up when Trump mentioned “waterways across our land” as part of his infrastructure target list during his State of the Union speech.


But Trump’s plan mostly scales back the government’s long-running role in charting the Mississippi’s course, calling for more private investment and less federal oversight. That, many along the river say, will create new problems.

“It’s disappointing,” said Mike Toohey, president of the Waterways Council, a barge industry group, echoing the reaction of many people who use the river. “We’re running on an interstate of water. And we’re always being overlooked.”


The trouble with controlling the Mississippi of today is that it has evolved into three different river systems.

The upper reaches of the Mississippi are a string of slack-water pools held behind dams, with water so placid that water skiing was invented there in 1922.

The middle portion is a mishmash of wing dikes and arched chevrons — man-made structures to “train” the river.

Here, it is artificially narrowed, only half as wide in St. Louis as it was in the early 1800s.

The truly fearsome Mississippi doesn’t start until the confluence with the Ohio River at Cairo, Ill., where the water emerges like a monster on par with the Amazon or Congo rivers.

The Mississippi then runs to the Gulf of Mexico, hidden behind an extensive levee system built after the Great Flood of 1927, a disaster that displaced 1 percent of the country’s population as levees fell like toppled dominoes.

That flood’s legacy still guides how the river is controlled today.

The Army Corps of Engineers oversees most of the river’s infrastructure. It’s the Corps that operates the locks and dams and built the levee system in the lower Mississippi; it maintains the tools used to control the water levels throughout and regulates levees farther north.

But a growing number of critics say the Corps’ flood-fighting efforts make flooding worse.


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“It’s like fighting the moon,” said Robert Criss, a hydrogeologist at Washington University in St. Louis. And it can look like a losing battle.

In the past seven years, the Mississippi River Valley has been hit with 100-, 200- and 500-year floods — ones that had a 1 percent or less chance of happening in each timespan — that caused damages of more than $50 billion.

Disasters along the river “have become persistent and systemic,” noted a group representing 75 cities from 10 states last year.

The White House response sketched out in Trump’s infrastructure plan is inadequate, said the group, the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, which involves 10 Iowa communities including Davenport and Burlington.

It actually makes it harder to fund new flood protections by slashing the federal government’s project cost-sharing from the current 50 to 80 percent down to 20 percent, said Colin Wellenkamp, the group’s executive director. So for every $1 in federal funds, local and state governments would need to chip in $4.

Meanwhile, historic river crests are falling like home-run records during Major League Baseball’s steroids era.

In Hannibal, where people have been recording river heights since Mark Twain’s time, four of the top 10 crests have come in the past decade.

In Brainerd, Minn., it’s five of the top 10.

“You can call it climate change, but whatever you call it, things are changing,” said Maj. Gen. Michael Wehr, who oversaw the Corps’ operations on the river until being promoted last year to be second in command at the Corps’ headquarters in Washington.


But Criss, the hydrogeologist, considers the Corps and its use of river infrastructure to be one of the problems.

“The water has nowhere to go,” he said.

You don’t flood out your neighbors. It’s one of the unwritten rules of the river. But people had long suspected that the levees across from Hannibal were too tall, making the flooding worse for neighbors downstream.

So a crew from the Corps came out two years ago in ATVs, riding along 200 miles of riverbanks to measure levee heights. The Corps found that the walls were 2 to 3 feet taller than the agency allows in many spots, stretching from Burlington down almost to St. Louis.

The Corps says its position is simple. Some levees soared past their federally authorized levels, with most of the height added after the major flooding of 2008.

“Their levees have been altered without careful evaluation and no permission,” said Scott Whitney, flood risk manager for the Corps’ Rock Island District.

A couple of feet might not sound like much. But every inch of levee height pushes floodwaters from one place to another. With levees blocking the river from its natural flood plain, the water has only one place to go: up.

The Corps can’t force a levee district to lower its levees. It can only stop paying for levee repairs. Each state regulates its levees — and the Mississippi touches 10 different states.

Trump’s infrastructure plan proposes reducing the Corps’ role in monitoring levee heights. The plan also proposes stripping the Corps of authority for some levees in the name of reducing costs and complexity. That’s good news for districts looking to raise their levees unfettered. It’s bad news for neighbors hoping the federal government continues to referee disputes.



The lock at Upper St. Anthony Falls in Minnesota was the first one closed on the Mississippi, in the interests of recreation. Now, the Corps is studying whether to close two more nearby locks — perhaps even pulling out the concrete and steel, returning the river to something approaching its wild state.

This is the barge industry’s worst fear, especially if this idea spreads.

“We’re not happy about it,” said Russell Eichman, a consultant for the barge trade group Upper Mississippi Waterway Association. “It might set a precedent.”

The 29 locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi were not built for flood control. They were built for barges. The river drops 420 feet in the 670 miles between the first and last lock, so barges need the staircase for navigation.

Barges move 300 million tons of goods a year on the Mississippi. It’s the route for 60 percent of U.S. grain exports.

The barge industry argues that ending shipping on the river would result in epic highway traffic jams.

What the river needs, barge boosters say, is to make the Mississippi’s locks bigger and better. Most were built in the 1930s and expected to last 50 years. When a lock breaks, the river can be closed for days or weeks.

“This a huge issue for the U.S. to compete on the world market from a transportation standpoint,” said Rodney Weinzierl of the Illinois Corn Growers Association.

In its infrastructure request, Iowa specifically called for winter maintenance at lock and dam 9, concrete work at lock and dam 19 and major rehabilitation of lock and dam 18.


The barge industry was excited by Trump’s talk of infrastructure spending — and then alarmed by his proposal for paying for it.

Trump and others have hinted they might use private-public partnerships. Companies would invest in new projects and charge user fees.

It’s commonly referred to as “P3.” Barge companies hate P3.

“If you were to go with P3 to build a lock and dam and start charging a toll, then you’re going to bankrupt operators,” said Toohey of the Waterways Council.

Barges pay nothing to go through locks now. The locks are run in the public interest.


Locks and levees are the most obvious infrastructure on the river.

But concrete matting is the most common.

There are 1,000 miles of it covering every river bend south of Cairo, Ill., to the Gulf of Mexico.

Most of it is unseen, below the waterline.

The Mississippi moves with such force that it eats away at its outer bends. Unimpeded, the river could move hundreds of feet a year. The concrete mats are engineered to keep the river in its place.

“It’s a never-ending problem,” said Joel Brown, the Corps’ chief of river operations for the Vicksburg district. “The river wants to move. Most of what we’re doing is just slowing the process.”

Armoring of the Mississippi’s bends began in the late 1800s. Willow branches were tethered into mattresses and sunk to the bottom. In the 1930s, the Corps switched to concrete. In the work known as revetment, little has changed since.

But the river is so strong that even the concrete blocks last only 50 years. So the Corps is building a new mat-sinking unit called Armor One. Robots, not humans, will do most of the work.

But human still need to decide how to manage the river. And no one knows from where the money for any of the infrastructure needs will come. The arguments continue, and the tools for holding back the water get older and weaker as the river rages on.

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