By STEVE BINDER
WASHINGTON, D.C. — From severe flooding two years ago to extreme drought last year, there were times when the nation’s key commercial waterway, the Mississippi River, was under threat of being shut down for long periods of time.
It took an emergency response last fall to remove rock pinnacles from a section of the river between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., along with some additional rain, to keep barges flowing along the principal navigation route.
With more than $110 billion in goods moved along the Mississippi River each year, a group of bipartisan lawmakers in Illinois say it is clear more can be done to manage the river’s health so it is never forced to close to barge traffic. Two new members of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, southern Illinois Democrat Bill Enyart and central Illinois Republican Rodney Davis, are cosponsoring the Mississippi River Navigation Sustainment Act.
“I’m proud to introduce this common-sense, bipartisan proposal to protect southern Illinois jobs and minimize the economic impact of droughts or flooding on Mississippi River traffic,” Enyart said. “Commerce on the Mississippi is imperative to the health and economic security of southern Illinois.
“Whether responding to the drought this winter or flooding years before, we must ensure the Army Corps of Engineers, Coast Guard and local industry have the tools and accurate information they need to plan ahead and respond to extreme weather while maintaining river traffic.”
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) is sponsoring the Senate version of H.R. 1152. During a meeting with the trade group Waterways Council last week, he commended the Corps for its work last fall to keep the river open, but said, “it is clear that we need to be better prepared for these extreme weather events that are becoming more frequent and more severe.”
The act will allow the Corps to operate and dredge in more areas, provide for the installation of automated river-level monitors and set up a conservation and habitat-restoration project for the river’s middle stretch.
“We all know that there will be a next crisis, probably sooner rather than later,” Durbin said. “We can’t wait decades to make the changes that are going to be needed.”
The act also forces the Corps to conduct a new study of how to better coordinate management of the entire river basin, the third largest in the world, during periods of extreme weather.
A second piece of legislation also introduced earlier this month, and again pushed by a coalition of Illinois lawmakers, gives the Corps the ability to partner with private interests to complete 15 locks and dams projects along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers in a five-year period (see related article). The Corps estimates some $60 billion worth of improvements to the nation’s island waterways system is needed today.