I’d like to tell you a story about my sister’s daredevil habit and Illinois waterways. Believe it or not, this story and Illinois waterways are related. Really, I promise.
My family has always ridden horses — a hobby that isn’t exactly risk-free. But Janell was always more of a daredevil. I liked to get horses ready for western pleasure and all-around events — you know, nice, easy riding in a round pen — but Janell liked to stand up, do flips and jump on and off galloping horses. She liked to trick ride.
And the thing about trick riding is it’s dangerous. And, you must have the right equipment to make it less dangerous.
Janell quit trick riding about 10 years ago, but last fall, she decided it would be fun to throw her trick saddle on her show horse and whip out a few tricks.
Her show horse, Lucky, is quite a bit bigger than her old trick riding horse, and Janell is quite a bit taller than she was when she was regularly trick riding. All of that means she had to upgrade her old equipment.
So, we spent the next hour looking for and sizing a bigger girth for her saddle, strapping on a new back cinch, fashioning a bigger breast collar and making longer reins — all so Janell could do a few tricks and be safe doing it.
How does jumping on and off horses at a gallop relate back to Illinois waterways you may ask?
Well, just like it’s hard to pull off a hippodrome stand or an indian hideaway without the proper equipment, it’s hard to use Illinois rivers — a mass transit system for Illinois — without the proper equipment, or locks and dams.
Illinois is unique in that it’s positioned on three rivers — the Illinois, Mississippi and Ohio — giving Illinois farmers a distinct advantage when it comes to exporting goods like corn, soybeans and much more. Not to mention that farmers across the state rely on these rivers to bring inputs like fertilizer up the river.
However, during this summer’s drought and subsequent river traffic crisis, which stemmed from the low levels on the Mississippi River, the dilapidated state of river locks and dams became more apparent than ever.
It seems like the solution would be an easy one to pinpoint: If there’s a problem, fix it. You can’t operate an economy like ours with shoddy, unsafe and outdated equipment. But, lock and dam upgrades have gone largely unfunded. Congress passed the Water Resources Development Act in 2007, which authorized the lock and dam upgrades to be eligible for funding. Great, right? Sure, until you realize the funding has not yet been approved.
In fact, the 70-year-old system of locks and dams on the Mississippi River can scarcely accommodate most barges. You see, unlike the locks and dams, today’s barges haven’t been locked in a 70-year time warp and have, instead, evolved with technology, getting bigger over time.
When the lock and dam system was built in the 1930s and 1940s, a 600-foot long lock was sufficient to accommodate shipping. However, barges can now extend up to 15 barges long by 3 barges wide, or 1,200 feet by 110 feet. Of the 29 locks on the upper Mississippi, only three can accommodate 15 barge tows. These larger locks allow barge traffic to leave within 30 to 45 minutes.
When barges approach the other 26 locks, they must break up the tows into two groups. The process to break up the tow, move both groups of barges through the lock and re-attach the tow can take at least 2 to 3 hours, making a trip from Minneapolis to New Orleans a one-and-a-half week endeavor.
When workers closed the Granite City, Ill., lock, one of the few large enough to accommodate modern barge traffic, in September 2012 to repair damage to a protection cell, hundreds of barges were idled, stalling shipments of grains, coal, fertilizer and construction materials. In other words, commerce moving into and out of the state of Illinois was off-limits, trapped in a time warp of its own.
More than that, the Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers estimated that the closure of the lock cost the shipping industry $2 million to $3 million per day in lost revenue.
Illinois farmers rely on the Illinois river system to ship and receive goods, making an efficient river system absolutely vital. The Mississippi River alone moves 78 million tons of goods valued at more than $23 billion each year, making it the main shipping channel for farmers’ products and inputs.
It’s time to pony up the dough, get our act together and fix our broken river system. Failing to do so would be like trying to perform an indian hideaway or a death drag at full speed with a broken girth and worn, outdated rigging — just plain dangerous.