By Robert Beduhn, P.E., EnvSp  

The Mississippi River, stretching from central Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, is of vital importance to the economy of the United States. Covering approximately half the river’s overall length of 2,300-mi, the Upper Mississippi River System provides the nation and the five-state region of Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Missouri, a low cost, vital link to domestic and international markets.

Over the course of the last century, the network of 29 federally owned locks and dams has facilitated commerce. Many of these locks and dams have reached or far exceeded their original 50-year designed life cycle by as much as 20 to 30 years. Rehabilitation and modernization is critical to keep the waterways commercially viable.



The locks and dams that were built for 1930s tow sizes need modernization to serve current and future traffic as a reliable and efficient trade corridor. The Upper Midwest Region served by these locks and dams is producing higher yields of agricultural products and new bulk products for export. Additionally, there is great potential to relieve the congestion of container traffic on our nation’s road and rail systems by increasing the movement of containers on the inland waterway system.

The system continues to be plagued with lock outages due to scheduled and un-scheduled maintenance. Recently, a lock gate anchorage at Lock 11 near Dubuque, Iowa, was found to be cracked, shutting down the river for barge traffic unexpectedly for a full day. These maintenance-driven outages have been steadily increasing as the system continues to age without a major rehabilitation of the existing infrastructure or modernization improvements.

In addition to transport of goods and services, the waterway also provides important benefits for water supply, energy production, recreation, and ecosystem benefits. The Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program was authorized in the Water Resource Development Act of 2007 to specifically enhance the navigation and ecosystem benefits provided by the Upper Mississippi and Illinois River systems. To date, however, Congress has not appropriated any funding to implement this effort.



The State of Iowa has a vested interest in a viable Upper Mississippi River System for commerce and for transportation. The Iowa Department of Transportation has examined alternatives to kick start implementation of rehabilitation and modernization improvements, and is exploring ways to enhance the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) traditional approach to funding and implementing projects. In 2013, the Iowa Department of Transportation retained HDR to complete a U.S. Inland Waterway Modernization Reconnaissance Study, which has been subsequently continued through a second study, Partnerships to Transform a Vital Trade Corridor to the Heartland, scheduled to be completed in summer 2018.

The system continues to be plagued with lock outages due to scheduled and un-scheduled maintenance. Recently, a lock gate anchorage at Lock 11 near Dubuque, Iowa, was found to be cracked, shutting down the river for barge traffic unexpectedly for a full day.

America’s inland waterways rely primarily on public investment and have suffered from chronic underfunding, seriously affecting the nation’s potential to participate in the highly competitive global market for exportable commodities that are, and will continue to be, in great demand.

The Reconnaissance Study was intended to identify and discuss the viability of various financing options. Several recommendations of the study have begun to emerge, including passage of two federal legislative bills that include provisions for alternative financing and study of public-private-partnerships to fund waterway improvements. If the United States does no more than maintain its current level of investment in its inland waterways, the economic losses due to delays and constricted traffic will increase shipping costs over time.



Fast forward to 2017, and the start of the Iowa Department of Transportation’s Partnerships Study. The study explores federal water resource development authorizations and the state’s Port Authority legislation, documents inland waterway economic benefits, identifies project implementation scenarios, and quantifies economic benefits of enhancing the waterway infrastructure.

Several suggested new governance and financing arrangements are being explored as part of the Partnerships Study, as well as a proposed pilot project to serve as a test case to demonstrate the effectiveness of the new arrangements.

Iowa has developed three capital improvement pilots for consideration. These include projects that could reduce congestion, increase system reliability, and increase system capacity.

Maintenance-driven outages have been steadily increasing as the Upper Mississippi River System continues to age. IMAGE COURTESY HDR


New lock and dam construction and major rehabilitation projects are funded under USACE’s construction general budget, with inland navigation project costs shared fifty-fifty with the Inland Waterway Trust Fund, which was established to help finance new construction and major rehabilitation on the nation’s inland waterways. Through a fuel tax, inland waterway users contribute 50 percent of the costs for construction of new locks and dams and rehabilitation projects costing over $21 million.

The major rehabilitation program works in conjunction with USACE’s major maintenance program, which is funded under its operating and maintenance appropriations. Major maintenance projects are then prioritized under USACE’s risk-informed priority of maintenance asset management process. But the backlog of projects and authorizations greatly exceeds revenues generated from the Inland Waterway Trust Fund and those provided by Congress. At current funding, some estimates put the backlog at over 100 years.

Federal water resource development legislation bills passed in 2014 and 2016 provide authorizations that could potentially transform project delivery on the inland waterway system. These authorizations relate to the use of non-federal funds, publicprivate partnerships, and non-federal implementation of pilot projects. Specifically, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 contains several important provisions that potentially address methods to provide much needed financing to the waterway system. These provisions direct USACE to study and develop programs to expand financing options for the inland waterway system. However, these programs have not advanced, primarily due to the lack of appropriations funding them.

Until appropriations are provided by Congress to advance many of the authorized alternative financing programs, the Iowa Department of Transportation is exploring potential use of existing programs to finance pilot efforts along the inland waterway system.



Congress is currently working on the 2018 water resources bill and a 2019 energy and water appropriations legislation. The 2018 bill could be used to address budget scoring, contracting, and other authorizations that could improve the delivery and cost efficiency of construction for the inland waterway system. The 2019 energy and water bill could provide specific funding to those portions of the 2014 and 2016 legislation that have not received appropriations. This would allow USACE to develop and explore additional financing mechanisms for the inland waterway system.

A number of entities have a vested interest in improving the lock and dams on the Upper Mississippi. These include various levels of state government, local port authorities, private industry, agricultural trade groups, the inland waterway users, and recreational interests, not to mention millions of American citizens.

Robert Beduhn, P.E., EnvSP, is Water, Dams & Levees Director, HDR;

[This article first published in the July-August 2018 issue of The Military Engineer]