river locks
ADVANTAGE: Mazon, Ill., farmer Paul Jeschke says repairs to locks and dams like this one at Starved Rock are a big deal. “It’s time to realize that our advantage over the rest of the world in producing bulk commodities is our inland waterway systems — for the imports we need and the exports going out,” he says.

Illinois River closures: Painful and necessary

The planned closure and restrictions for six locks and dams in 2020 will likely affect basis and fertilizer prices but must be done to repair 80- to 90-year-old infrastructure.

What happens when you shut down parts of a major navigable waterway for nearly four months? Illinois farmers are about to find out.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has announced that in 2020, it will close or restrict six of the eight lock and dam sites on the Illinois River to make necessary repairs, including the LaGrange Lock and Dam, Versailles; Peoria Lock and Dam, Creve Coeur; Starved Rock Lock and Dam, Ottawa; Marseilles Lock and Dam, Marseilles; Dresden Island Lock and Dam, Morris; and Brandon Road Lock and Dam, Joliet. Each of the eight lock and dam sites on the Illinois river are between 80 and 90 years old and overdue for significant repairs.

The Corps has scheduled the closures simultaneously to lessen the impact on commercial navigation, and chose the July-to-October time period to avoid harvest season and the historical spring flooding season.

“Our preference is to do it all in one year, rather than close a lock a year for several years. We’d like to consolidate efforts into a single year,” says Matt Coffelt, program manager for the Corps’ Rock Island District and head of what the Corps is calling the Illinois Waterway Consolidated Closures.

Mazon, Ill., farmer Paul Jeschke says this will be a big deal for Illinois farmers who depend on that waterway and nearby alternatives. Jeschke delivers grain to Morris, where the lock and dam will have restrictions and partial closures nearly every year through 2023.

“Our basis is going to be affected for a lot of years here,” Jeschke says. “The millions of bushels that go to the Illinois River in the summer won’t be able to go there, which means other waterways will be crowded and secondary markets outside the river terminals will be impacted.”

Look for goods coming up the river to be impacted, too, such as fertilizer, which typically moves north for distribution in the summer. Jeschke says those facilities will have to make alternative transportation plans, which are likely more expensive.

“We’ll get hit on both sides of that,” says Jeschke, who’s also a director on the IL Corn board.

Playing catch-up
And while lock and dam repairs are good news in general, Jeschke says they’re happening because regular maintenance hasn’t occurred — nor have the plans to truly overhaul and replace aging locks and dams ever come to fruition.

“The ideal, especially at LaGrange, is to build a new one,” Jeschke says, explaining that the original plan was never to close the old lock but to build a new lock and refurbish the old one, so they’d have two locks. “Then this repair would’ve been done in a fashion that wouldn’t have shut down the river,” he says.

He adds that the U.S. has been sitting on its hands doing “minimal maintenance” while foreign competitors invest millions in their own infrastructure systems. “We want to have regular maintenance, not catastrophic failure,” he explains.

In many ways, Jeschke believes lock and dam upgrades are about protecting U.S. crops — and U.S. markets.

“It’s time to realize that our advantage over the rest of the world in producing bulk commodities is our inland waterway systems — for the imports we need and the exports going out,” he says.

For Jeschke, who delivers 20% to 25% of his grain in the July to October time period when river traffic will be impacted, the shutdown feels both painful and necessary.

“We have to be patient and accept the 90-day closure because it’s critical to get it done,” he says. “The hardship has to be withstood because of the importance of the work.”

Construction timeline: What’s happening where
According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, work in 2020 will include:

 LaGrange Lock and Dam, Versailles. Work will include dewatering the lock chamber to replace severely worn lock gate machinery and make significant repairs to crumbling concrete and steel structures. This work is anticipated to take up to 120 days to complete.

Peoria Lock and Dam, Creve Coeur. Work will include dewatering the lock chamber for about 60 days to perform inspections and maintenance of areas usually submerged.

Starved Rock and Dam, Ottawa. Work will include dewatering the lock chamber to reconstruct miter gate sills and replace anchorages in preparations for new miter gates to be installed. This work is expected to take up to 120 days.

Marseilles Lock and Dam, Marseilles. Work will be similar to that at Starved Rock, including dewatering the lock chamber to reconstruct miter gate sills and replace anchorages in preparations for new miter gates to be installed. This work is expected to take up to 120 days.

Dresden Island Lock and Dam, Morris, and Brandon Road Lock and Dam, Joliet. These sites are anticipated to only be partially closed, allowing for traffic to pass at night. Work will include installing bulkhead recesses so future maintenance and dewatering will be possible. Width restrictions will be necessary for a portion of the time while the slots are under construction, and a shorter, two-week full closure will be needed at some point during the process to construct the bulkhead sill across the bottom of each lock chamber.

The Corps has also announced that additional closures will be needed in 2023 at Dresden Island and at Brandon Road to install new gates and perform anchorage and sill modifications. The Corps has planned three years between the two closures to allow the navigation industry time to prepare and recoup from the 2020 closures.

Daytime closures will occur during the months of June, July and August. The project also will include a complete closure from Aug. 16-29. The locks will be open from July 3 to 6 a.m. July 8 to accommodate Fourth of July boat traffic.

For more detailed information, check out this Corps of Engineers webinar.

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