By TIM ALEXANDER
PEORIA, Ill. — Torrential storms dumped up to 8 inches of rain over parts of central Illinois the week of April 15, spilling the Illinois River over its banks, disrupting rail service, closing state highways and damaging at least one Illinois River lock, resulting in its closure.
Damage to the Marseilles Lock and Dam in LaSalle County is expected to take weeks to repair, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Five of the lock’s eight gates were damaged when seven barges broke free from a tow, with two gates sustaining 15- to 20-foot gouges, Thomson Reuters reported.
As a result, the gates are not able to close fully and maintain the pool of water above the dam. “As soon as conditions permit, the Corps will perform engineering analyses for use in developing repair and recovery plans, ensuring that the dam can return to operational status as soon as possible,” said Tom Heinold of the Corps’ Rock Island District.
At press time, a 144-mile stretch of the Illinois River from Florence to Lacon remained close to all barge and river traffic because of the record flooding, which also contributed to the deaths of three Illinoisans during the week. “It’s so pervasive,” said Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, during a flyover of the river. “It’s heartbreaking how many people suffered damage.”
Sections of Illinois Route 29 – which runs parallel to the river in Peoria, Marshall and Bureau counties north of Peoria – was closed or reduced to a single lane for several days following the flood. In addition, Iowa Interstate Railroad cars sat idled as workers scrambled to clear mud, rocks, branches and other debris from the tracks alongside the same stretch of the river. In Lacon, the Cargill AgHorizons grain elevator was abandoned, immersed in the bloated Illinois River.
About 60 percent of U.S. grain exports are transported via the Mississippi River and its tributaries, including the Illinois River. Some agricultural products will be more affected by the interruption of barge navigation on the Illinois, as well as Mississippi and Missouri, rivers than others, according to Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition.
“The lock closures will affect corn more than soybeans. Eighty percent of soybean exports occur between September and February,” he explained. “We have seen aggressive pricing at Gulf locations due to demand for corn and soybeans since the river is not providing that pipeline of service.
“Basis has been widening in the interior since grain handlers can’t release what they have on hand and what they are receiving.”
In addition to corn and soybeans, the delivery of agricultural inputs such as fertilizers for spring applications are also affected by lock closures such as the one in Marseilles. “According to the USDA, April is the No. 1 month for barge deliveries of fertilizer. These shipments originate in southern Louisiana and are destined to the Midwest,” Steenhoek said.
The flooding comes on the heels of a crippling drought that adversely affected 2012 corn yields in Illinois and much of the Corn Belt. An average of 5.82 inches of rain fell statewide during the week preceding USDA’s Illinois Weather & Crops report of April 22.
“On January 1, the water level on the Mississippi River at St. Louis was 4.57 feet below the river gauge,” said Steenhoek. “The level at St. Louis (was predicted) to rise to 39.4 feet above the river gauge (after flooding). We will therefore witness a 45-foot swing in water levels, in four months.”