Three members of Congress got a bitterly cold tour Wednesday morning of Lock & Dam 15 at Rock Island Arsenal.

The maintenance and repair work is benefitting from the recent federal allocation of $829.1 million from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which is mainly going for the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program (NESP) on the Upper Mississippi River System (UMRS).

The funding will be used to complete modernization of Lock & Dam 25, including the construction of a new 1,200-foot lock, as well as an environmental restoration project at Lock & Dam 22 and other small-scale ecosystem and navigation projects in the region.

Col. Jesse Curry, commander of the Rock Island District for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (based on the Arsenal), expressed pride in the work and the federal support.

Col. Jesse Curry has been commander of the Army Corps of Engineers Rock Island District, headquartered on Rock Island Arsenal, since July 2021 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“I couldn’t have a better team to help us deliver on all this,” he said before Wednesday’s tour of the Rock Island lock, with the river water removed (a process called “dewatering”), usually just done every 25 years on a lock and dam.

“This is something special and really unique,” Curry (commander here since July 2021) said of the tour. “The opportunity to step on Mississippi River bedrock is something not a lot of people get.”

The Rock Island District encompasses large portions of Illinois and Iowa, as well as smaller sections of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Missouri. It operates three flood risk management reservoirs in Iowa, two in the Des Moines area (Saylorville Lake and Lake Red Rock), as well as one outside Iowa City at Coralville Lake.

The district operates and maintains 12 locks and dams on the Mississippi River starting at Lock and Dam 11 in Dubuque and ending at Lock and Dam 22 in Saverton, Mo. It also operates and maintains six lock and dams on the Illinois Waterway starting at Brandon Road Lock and Dam near Joliet, and ending at LaGrange Lock and Dam.

Iowa Congresswoman Mariannette Miller-Meeks spoke at Wednesday morning’s event (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“One of the reasons we do this, is to highlight the great work our workforce does every single day, to keep this infrastructure up and running,” Curry said. “But also, to bring those partners out there – who’ve been incredibly important and incredibly supportive – to make sure we have the ability to do that work. So members of Congress, industry partners, all those out there focused on ensuring this critical infrastructure up and down the Mississippi River remains viable, remains able to support the commerce.”

“Today was really a great day to show that off and welcome them,” he said after the tour, noting the Corps wanted to thank everyone for the significant new funding.

U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Taylorville) speaks with Col. Jesse Curry on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022 at the Rock Island District Visitor Center (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“The funding we’re receiving through the Jobs Act will make historical impacts on this system – our ability to maintain it for many years to come,” Curry said. “We were proud to showcase this location, but also to say thanks for all those that made it possible.”

The new funding is probably triple what the Corps typically gets for operation and maintenance of locks and dams, he said. “We’ve been waiting for it; we’re ready for it, to take full advantage of that funding. You’re gonna see a lot of great work going on up and down the river.”

Maintenance efforts just improve the reliability of locks and dams, Curry said.

“What that does for us and the industry reduces those unexpected closures, due to failures, and allows us to plan ahead – address those problems before they result in an actual closure of a lock,” he said.

“Critically important” work

U.S. Rep Cheri Bustos (D-Moline), U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Taylorville) and U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-Ottumwa) attended on Wednesday.

“Sixty percent of the corn and beans that are grown in our region, travel along the Mississippi River to go to the world market. So this is absolutely, critically important,” Bustos sand of the locks and dams.

U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Moline) spoke at Wednesday’s tour with the Army Corps of Engineers (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Her Congressional District has more locks and dams than any other district in the country. “What we have going on out here is very important for our family farmers, to our building trades, to the Army Corps of Engineers,” Bustos said, noting she serves on the House Appropriations Committee.

The locks and dams were built in the 1930s, to accommodate steamboats first, then 600-foot barges and now 1,200-foot barges.

Now, 600-foot locks will be doubled in size up and down the river to accommodate the bigger barges, Bustos said. “The people who work so hard to move those goods up and down the river, they will not have to decouple the barges. That will save time, save money, will keep us competitive on the world stage.”

“So this is major,” she said. “When they said we were going to get $829 million for the Upper Mississippi locks and dams, I said, this was one of the best days of my Congressional career. This is monumental.”’

Earlier Wednesday morning, Bustos visited Lock & Dam 15 for her 112th “Cheri on Shift” (work on a job site) as an Army Corps Engineer. During that visit, she broke concrete for new miter gate anchorage bars using an excavator.

“I pounded concrete that has to be cleared, so they can replace the joints, that operate the doors,” Bustos said later. “They haven’t been replaced in about 30 years. They’ve become worn out, so I chopped up concrete so they could get to the joint.”

“All of the oversight will be done from here,” she said of the Rock Island District coordinating the $829 million in projects. “If Lock and Dam 25 – which is the biggest need right now on the Mississippi – that’s the first priority, to go from 600 to 1,200 feet.

“The reason that’s so important, if that one lock goes down, it’s a $1.5-billion economic hit,” Bustos said. “And that one’s north of St. Louis. And Lock and Dam 22, north of Quincy, that is more of an ecosystem project.”

While this will repair and update Lock & Dam 25 on the Mississippi, it will benefit all locks and dams north of it — including Lock & Dam 15 in the QC, she said. “The failure of any lock and dam along the Mississippi would have significant consequences for those upstream, as it would fully prevent the movement of goods through that point, shutting down commerce. This project will also be led and operated by the Army Corps of Engineers team in Rock Island, which will create jobs in the QC region.”

Cheri Bustos during Wednesday’s tour of Mississippi River bedrock in Lock and Dam 15 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

It will also be a multi-year project, to add 1,200-foot locks for the rest of the Upper Mississippi, Bustos said. “They start with the biggest need.”

“I look forward to seeing these funds get to work modernizing our locks and dams,” Bustos said, “helping our agricultural producers bring tons of goods to market faster, increasing trade by speeding up the transport of American products, spurring job creation, alleviating supply chain stress and helping reduce transportation emissions.” 

Essential to keep the channel open

“Projects like this are essential, for us to keep this navigation channel – and the areas I’ve represented for nine years – keep them open, keep them our inland coast,” Rep. Davis said.

“Keeping them operational has been a bipartisan success story over the time we’ve served,” he said.

“It just shows you the importance of the project, even more so when the water’s gone,” Davis said after the tour. “The immense size of what it takes to do what we do, to get commerce up and down this river.”

“Dewatering doesn’t happen on a regular basis, but when it does, to be able to stand in that lock system, when you’ve got 35 feet of water being held back, it’s kind of our modern-day version seeing the Red Sea being parted,” he said. “What these guys in the Corps do, they part the Mississippi on a regular basis, when you need to get a barge through.”

Congressman Rodney Davis (center) during Wednesday’s tour of Lock and Dam 15 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Davis has worked with the Rock Island District for his entire time in Congress. “To see these projects, it’s really an honor,” he said.

Aaron Dunlop, river operations manager for the Rock Island District, said the 1,200-foot lock expansion is critical for many reasons – including efficiency and safety.

The Corps has a new $40-million heavy-lift crane, that is used along the river from St. Paul to New Orleans, Dunlop said. It has a 500-ton lift capacity.

“It impacts the safety, operation and maintenance, and ability to respond to emergencies, that we’ve been lacking for many years,” he said of new equipment like this.

The dewatering project started on Jan. 3 and is due to be completed March 3, said Matt Thurman, chief of maintenance for the Rock Island District.

“We try to dewater sites typically every 25 to 30 years,” he said. “One of the main purposes of why we’re here is so we can do inspections. We get the water of this and we will have teams of inspectors inspect this entire site. We want to make sure our structure is performing the way it should. If there are issues, we want to document them and repair them if possible and get everything back on track.”

Matt Thurman of the Army Corps of Engineers (right) explains the lock dewatering process on Jan. 26, 2022 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Thurman showed the lock’s miter gates, which he described as “French doors” that barges can pass through. These gates were installed in 2019, but most sites on the Upper Mississippi date to the 1930s, Thurman said.

“When we talk about watering and dewatering these locks, there’s no pumps involved,” Col. Curry said. The water is controlled by manipulating valves in the lock walls, he said.

They are replacing key parts of the beams and steel in the lock, and winter is perfect to do that, Thurman said. “Towing traffic is very light in the winter months, because of the ice conditions, so it’s a great time for us to close the lock, and a great time to replace miter gate anchorages.”

“It’s kind of like a hinge you would have on a door in your house; we’re just replacing the hinge,” he explained.

“One of the things I’m particularly proud of for the Rock Island District, is our ability to fabricate a lot of those items,” Curry said. “It saves a tremendous amount of taxpayer dollars, and time.”

“Most things we need here, we can’t go to Home Depot or Menards to get them,” Thurman said. “We have to store raw materials and if something comes up, we generally have to fabricate it ourselves.”

The Government Bridge can be seen beyond the lock, on the west end of Arsenal Island (photo by Jonathan Turner).

The project cost is $3.5 million, including replacing concrete, supported with the new funding, he said.

“The tow captains and barge captains are amazing,” Thurman said. “It’s extra hard navigating into this chamber. It’s really an amazing feat as they come through here.”

“Of all the efficiencies we’re going to gain, I point out the safety to our professional mariners. To not have to break that tow in half, in these conditions we’re facing today, every time we put a deck crew on tow, we put them at risk of injury,” said Martin Hettel, vice president of government relations for the American Commercial Barge Line.

“Having a 1,200-foot chamber to slide in and slide out, is just going to make that much more safe,” he said.

For more information on the Corps’ Rock Island District, visit its website.