Olmsted Locks and Dam

Churning water pours out on the west side of the Olmsted Locks and Dam in Illinois. Ag groups are hopeful completion of the $3 billion project will free up funds for other needed maintenance in the Upper Mississippi region.

OLMSTED, Ill. — The largest and most costly inland waterway project in U.S. history is virtually complete. And while it may not directly affect agriculture in the Corn Belt, it could help free up resources that will benefit farmers.

The Olmsted Locks and Dam was completed last year, when the finishing touches were made on the dam. The two locks were finished in 2012. The project fell victim to delays and cost increases that ballooned the original budget from about $780 million to more than $3 billion. The project spanned more than 20 years.

It replaces Lock and Dam 52 and Lock and Dam 53, which were built nearly a century ago. While the new structure is complete and operating, crews are still in the process of demolishing 52 and 53 upriver.

The Olmsted Locks and Dam is located on the Ohio River, about 17 miles east of the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, which meet at Cairo, Ill. It is speeding up barge traffic threefold, according to Ryan Lawrence, assistant operations manager.

A big reason is the replacement of the old locks — one that was 600 feet — with two 1,200-foot locks.

The dam’s construction was historic in more ways than one. It was the first built in the United States using the “in the wet” method, in which the concrete sections are put in place under water, without construction of a coffer dam that temporarily re-routes the river.

“They definitely learned a lot. The processes they came up with were incredible,” Lawrence said. “Placing a huge chunk of concrete under water compared to de-watering everything and pouring it like typical construction poses some challenges. But the contractor and the Corps working together came up with some great options.”

The construction site included a concrete plant that produced multi-ton forms, and a gantry crane that moved the concrete sections to the river’s edge via a short rail line, also built specifically for the project. Lawrence said the innovative construction method was necessary because of the critical location.

“This Paducah (Kentucky) area is the busiest point in navigable waterways in the U.S.,” he said. “With the Mississippi just downstream, it was critical not to stop traffic for a number of years while construction took place.”

The new structure greatly reduces the time necessary for passage of barge pulls. Lockmaster Shane Byassee said passage through the old system upriver took upwards of three hours.

“We should be able to do a total lock within one hour,” Byassee said. “That’s making the approach, blocking and departing the lock.”

Traffic is constant.

“There’s never a time we do not have a vessel waiting to lock,” Byassee said. “We always have a queue.”

The lock and dam system on the nation’s inland waterway is responsible for making major river transportation possible. But the importance of the network may be taken for granted, Lawrence said.

“If we didn’t have locks and dams, there would be periods of the year where you could walk across the river,” Lawrence said. “Obviously, you couldn’t get a barge through it. So we put dams in to impound a certain amount of water, and we’ll let that base flow pass through the dam while holding what we need to allow navigation to traverse the river.”

Ag groups are hopeful that completion of the Olmsted project will free up funds for other needed maintenance in the Upper Mississippi region. The federal government picked up 85% of the cost of that project, with the remainder coming from the Inland Waterway Trust Fund, whose budget is dependent on taxes on barge fuel.

“The industry is trying to increase the cost-share by the federal government, using Olmsted as a precedent,” said Scott Sigman, transportation and export infrastructure lead with the Illinois Soybean Association. “We’re not necessarily looking at 85-15, but at least a 75-25 share.”

The $35 million allocated by the Corps of Engineers for demolition of Lock 52 and Lock 53 replaced by the Olmsted project could free up funds for maintenance on the seven locks and dams on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.

“We’re very focused on the Illinois River,” Sigman said. “Our sense is, while they’re devoting $117 million on the Illinois River, the backlog of maintenance is still $700 million.

“Should the Illinois waterway — which includes the Chicago and Des Plaines and Calumet rivers — have a catastrophic failure of any sort, we’re afraid that there would be capital flight, that traffic would diminish, and the importance of the priority of investments would also diminish. They can’t catch up with a backlog of deferred maintenance fast enough in the eye of the Illinois corn and soybean farmer.”

Olivia Dorothy welcomes the completion of the Olmsted project, but sees little movement on similar needs on the Mississippi, Missouri, Illinois and other Midwestern rivers critical to transportation of agricultural goods.

“Obviously, the completion of Olmsted should free up money in the Corps’ budget, but I can’t say for sure exactly what they’ll be spending that on,” said Dorothy, director of the Upper Mississippi River Basin for the national association American Rivers.

A feasibility study on infrastructure improvements on the Mississippi north of St. Louis is still in progress. The Corps is proposing work on existing stops.

“When they built them, they made space for two locks, but put only one in,” Dorothy said. “There would be a second lock at each site. The problem is, it’s a really expensive proposal.”

Less expensive alternatives have been suggested. They include structures such as mooring cells — commonly referred to as dolphins — which help reduce the time involved in preparing to navigate an existing lock.

The last major project on the Mississippi River is the Melvin Price Locks and Dam. The structure, about 17 miles north of St.  Louis, replaced Lock and Dam No. 26, and was completed in 1994. A proposal to put in additional locks farther north has not gotten any traction.

“The Corps is not going to be able to do that because procedurally, they’re not at that point,” Dorothy said. “One problem is that it’s a really expensive proposal.”

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Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.