Navigation season resumes on Mississippi River

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In 2020, nearly 17 million tons of commodities passed through Lock and Dam 10 in Guttenberg. Above, a tow boat heads south on the Mississippi River near Marquette. (Photo credit U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District)

By Caroline Rosacker

During the 2020 season, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District, staff supported 2,620 commercial navigation lockages at Lock and Dam 10, near Guttenberg. This was above the ten-year average of 2,164 lockages. The 2020 lockages supported 16,974,594 tons of commodities by the navigation industry, in comparison to the 2019 season that supported 1,750 commercial lockages and the movement of 11,575,625 tons of commodities.

In addition to the commercial lockages, Corps staff locked 1,630 recreation vessels during 934 lockages and an additional 21 lockages from various government agencies including the Corps. To minimize lockages, the Corps tries to include multiple recreation vessels during a single lockage. 

Navigation statistics fluctuate from year to year, depending on weather, river flows and length of the navigation season. The St. Paul District maintains a 9-foot navigation channel from Minneapolis to Guttenberg. Keeping this system open is vital to the nation’s economy.

Patrick Moes, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District, Public Affairs, commented, "The beauty of the Mississippi River is very important, but the value the river provides for producers is equally beneficial. Transporting grain commodities on the river saves the producer about a dollar a bushel, enabling them to move their product around the globe at a lower cost. One 15-barge tow is the equivalent of 1,050 semi-trucks or 200 railroad cars. If we didn't have barge traffic the truck and train traffic would increase exponentially."

In addition to the start of the 2021 navigation season, the Corps continues looking at ways of getting the public’s input for potential opportunities and locations to place dredged materials that are removed from the navigation channel. Moes noted, "We wrapped up major winter maintenance projects at Locks 2, 4, 5A and 6 in preparation for the 2021 navigation season. We also continue working on our dredged material management plans for Pools 9 and 10."

Public comments on dredging project

Paul Machajewski, Dredged Material Manager for St. Paul District, explained, "We dredge about a million cubic yards of material from the Mississippi River each year. Forty thousand of that is in Guttenberg. Our current practice is to place the dredged materials on McMillan Island, and then transport it to the Buck Creek placement site. The sand can be used for cattle bedding, road maintenance and fill for construction. Since 2000 we have been managing McMillan Island, and have unloaded it every ten or so years." He went on to say, "It is getting more and more expensive to dredge and transport materials. One thing we realized – we were handling the sand three times before it reached its final destination, the Buck Creek placement site. We need a long-range plan to manage the sand in a cost-effective way." 

Last fall, the Corps kicked off a planning practice, and collected data internally to present to the public. "We intend to hold public meetings to gather information on what to do with the sand. We are seeking input on how to manage the material and draft a plan that we can use in the future," said Machajewski. 

Moes added, "Nothing is concrete yet, but we may hold the meetings in late spring or early summer.  Specific details on how to get the public’s comments are still being worked out since we want to minimize potential COVID-19 exposure to the public and our staff. We are also working on utilizing some of the dredged material to create habitat islands."

Brian Sipos, Lockmaster, Lock 9, commented,  "We expect navigation to continue to pick up. Our pre-maintenance is done, and we are fully staffed. Northbound commodities are coal, fertilizer and salt. Southbound are grains, such as soybeans and corn. We anticipate the flood risk to be low compared to last year, with the slow snowmelt. Last year, because of COVID-19, the Lock and Dams up and down the river were closed. We are now open, but ask people to maintain COVID-19 protocol." 

River safety

A gradual spring thaw has opened up the Mississippi River for the start of the 2021 navigation season. "Now that the ice is gone we have had increased river traffic. We ask anglers to please stay out of restricted areas, which include 600 feet above the dam and 150 feet below," said Sipos. "The turbulent water in those areas creates a boil of churning water that could pull you in pretty quickly. Please wear a life jacket, and make sure you have an anchor in your boat, and know where it is at all times. If you find yourself in trouble in our restricted areas, drop your anchor to secure your position so we can come out and assist you," he stressed.

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