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Illinois, Mississippi River barge tour touting WRDA
Illinois Correspondent

PEORIA, Ill. — After the U.S. Senate recently approved an amended version of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), organizers could have been forgiven for discontinuing the 10-year-old tradition of sponsoring educational barge tours on the Illinois and upper Mississippi rivers. Instead of canceling the tours, the Illinois Corn Growers Assoc. (ICGA) and other sponsors turned this year’s six scheduled trips into impromptu celebrations.

“This is indeed a cause for celebration,” said Paul Rohde, president of the Midwest Area River Coalition (MARC 2000), to the 145 tour participants floating downstream on the Illinois River between Peoria and Pekin on Aug. 2. “But, we have a lot of work ahead. This is not the finish line for WRDA; this is more like the starting gun.”

Though WRDA gained Senate approval in July, the bill, which provides some $1.8 billion for much-needed lock and dam repairs on the waterways and nearly as much for a 105,000-acre ecosystem restoration project, must still pass through House and Senate conference committees for fine-tuning and final approval before being submitted to President Bush for his signature.

WRDA proponents have said Bush has indicated he would sign the final version of the bill when presented with it - possibly by this October.

“After (the President’s signature), we’ll need to continue to fight for appropriation dollars; the funding is not guaranteed,” said Rohde, who also utilized his podium time to praise the ICGA, environmental groups and organized labor for their collaboration in promoting the bill.

“Lock detractors are not going to go away; if anything they may be even more resolved. The waterways present the most environmentally friendly way to move bulk commodities. We need to get those locks under construction.”

As the single, canopied barge and 147-foot by 38-foot, 8-ton tow, operated by B&H Tow of Oklahoma, meandered down the Illinois flanked by river-dependent factories such as Peoria’s Archer Daniels-Midland Co. and wading herons and gulls, a succession of speakers from the agricultural, business and labor communities took turns addressing the gallery.

Rick Hodel, president of Peoria Barge Co., described the river system’s importance to his company, which transports grain, gravel, and other commodities from Chicago to Grafton on the Illinois River. Rick Granatis of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers explained the workings of the Peoria lock and dam as the barge entered and exited the 70 year-old structure, which will be undergoing improvements in its hydraulic system soon.

“With (the Peoria lock’s) single, 600-foot chamber, (15-barge tows) must be broken down manually and only nine of the barges can be taken through. A winch line is then attached to the other six barges to bring them through, resulting in time-consuming, expensive delays,” said Granatis, detailing the impetus behind WRDA’s aim of doubling the length of seven locks and dams such as Peoria’s to 1,200 feet.

Wally Denzer, representing District 6 of the Illinois Soybean Assoc., said the ISA has worked for more than a decade to promote WRDA. He said, “60-70 percent of America’s soybeans are exported through the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. That number is likely to grow in the near future.”

ICGA President John Kuhfuss said 1 billion bushels of grain are exported on the waterways to the Gulf of Mexico each year, and a future avenue exists for ethanol exports. “We’ve achieved a significant milestone with the Senate’s passage of WRDA,” Kuhfuss said. “Things can still get in the way before the final version of the bill is passed. While we’re very optimistic, we cannot be complacent.”

State Sen. Paul Risinger (R-37 Dist.) and Rep. Don Moffitt (R-74 Dist.) were present on the tour but did not address the crowd. “First off, I’m a farmer,” Moffitt said. “WRDA’s final passage is of importance to all of the Midwest’s agricultural producers.”

Rohde expressed hope that the House and Senate committees will be able to merge their separate WRDA bills and pass it to the President during a legislative session in September.

“There is about a three-week window in September, and there is incentive for Congress to get it done,” he said.

Rohde didn’t know if this would be the last educational barge tour to come to Peoria and other towns on the two rivers.

“The whole idea behind the tours was to raise awareness for the bill and for the many commercial uses of the rivers. We’ll look at the needs during (MARC 2000’s) annual meeting this fall and probably make a determination on whether to continue the tours then,” Rohde said. “We’ll also hopefully be using our annual meeting as a celebration of the final passage of WRDA.”

This farm news was published in the August 9, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.