CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Agriculture organizations in Illinois have lobbied for lock and dam upgrades on the Illinois and upper Mississippi rivers for decades in order to improve barge movements of grain and other commodities.
But when the USDA announced last month it would invest $262 million in watershed rehabilitation funding for lock and dam repairs in 26 states, Illinois dams were left high and dry.
The reasons, according to Ruth Book, state conservation engineer for the Illinois Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), lie with the funding source and intent of the program. Book said the dams that will benefit from 2014 watershed rehabilitation funding all provide critical infrastructure that protects public health and safety.
"If there has been development downstream from a dam – perhaps houses built near the dam – and the hazard class has gone up, the watershed rehabilitation program can be used to bring those dams up to spec. There are other reasons, too, such as structural deficiencies in the dam, that can qualify," said Book, who coordinates the state’s NRCS engineering team that consults with NRCS staffers and private landowners to implement its conservation programs.
"In Illinois, we have not had a great deal of sponsor interest in the program as of yet. There are actually very few places in the state where (the program) would apply."
Though the program, which has existed since the 1940s, was not conceived to expedite river movements of agricultural commodities, ag will benefit from the dam upgrades through improved protection of rural agricultural communities located in watershed areas.
"This investment will protect people and property from floods, help keep our water clean and ensure that critical structures continue to provide benefits for future generations," said NRCS chief Jason Weller, who announced the program during a July 18 news conference in Perry, Okla., with Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), chair of the House Committee on Agriculture.
"Families, businesses and our agriculture economy depend on responsible management of dams and watersheds, and we are continuing to provide that support to these communities."
A number of the projects to be funded are in Oklahoma. Within the Farm World coverage area, watershed rehabilitation funds will be used for projects in Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee. In all, 150 dams will benefit from upgrades under the program.
In addition, another 500 dam sites will undergo safety assessments. Some 250,000 people will benefit from improved flood protection made possible by dam repairs under the program, Weller noted. "We will work closely with the local project sponsors to ensure that these dams continue to protect and provide water for communities and agriculture," he said.
Book said the NRCS’ watershed rehabilitation program had been used to repair aging dams and build new ones in Illinois as recently as 2003, and USDA’s July announcement represent a new era for the program. But it doesn’t appear as if Illinois’ waterway infrastructure will immediately benefit from the program’s resurrection, she said. "The program is very much about public safety. If your project is not one that would (help prevent) an imminent threat of damage or loss of life, it’s not going to compete well for funding under this program."
The announcement of the program was made possible through the 2014 farm bill, which increased the typical annual investment in watershed rehabilitation by nearly 21-fold. A complete list of NRCS 2014 watershed rehabilitation projects and their individual funding allotments can be accessed at www.nrcs.usda.gov