Six locks and dams to be closed in 2020: How Central Illinois soybean farmers plan to continue moving their product

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CENTRAL ILLINOIS– The central Illinois agriculture community is preparing for some major changes on the Illinois Waterway in 2020.

In 2020, six locks and dams will be undergoing major renovations after receiving failing grades from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

This means soybean farmers might have to find other means of transportation for their product.

WMBD’s Matt Sheehan toured the Peoria Lock & Dam on Friday to see the damaged equipment, and learn the plans to minimize impact on farmers and commercial navigation.

“When one lock closes on the river, especially on the lower end of the river, it’ll essentially close the entire river. That’s why this year our planning for 2020, we’re trying to consolidate as many closures as we can into one time period to minimize those impacts,” said Mike Walsh, Chief of Locks & Dams on the Illinois Waterway.

The Illinois Soybean Association says there’s a $778 million backlog of deferred maintenance.

Scott Sigman, the Transportation & Exports Lead for the Illinois Soybean Association explained how locks and dams are extremely important for the Illinois Waterway and the states’ economy.

“Chicago is 160 feet above St. Louis in terms of elevation, above sea level.  So these locks step down, they serve as the steps, from the upper elevations to the lower elevations as the river makes its course,” Sigman said.

Sigman says the government funds just haven’t been there for repairs.

“Congress hasn’t appropriated sufficient funds to make it possible to address all of the maintenance requirements to keep the locks even at a level of B. A lot of the locks were ranked as Cs, Ds, and even Fs,” Sigman said.

Many of the locks and dams along the Illinois Waterway were constructed in the 1930s with a planned life-span of 50 years.

Walsh says these repairs, once done, will benefit the Illinois Waterway immensely.

“The higher our grades, the better our compenents are in. The greater the condition we keep our components and our infrastructure in, the more reliability we can ensure for our partners in the navigation community and our share holders,” Walsh said.

Sigman says although moving product along the river may not be as doable throughout this process, soybean farmers have been planning to move their product by different means of transportation.

“If prices rise, because there are areas that can’t get soybeans because of these closures, we could see opportunities for farmers to evacuate some of their on-farm storage facilities or bins, which could be a possible boom or net positive for producers,” Sigman said.

Products can be moved by trucks and rail, but Patrick Kirchhofer of the Peoria County Farm Bureau says water transportation is the most efficient way.

“A 15-barge tow is equivalent to around 216 train cars or 1,050 trucks,” Kirchhofer said.

The Illinois Soybean Association reports $117 million are being dedicated to these coordinated closures, but it’s still not enough to fix all the locks and dams problems.

Sigman and the ISA are concerned if these repairs will actually be finished as planned.

“The concerns are that the work that is being done may find, just as you go into any construction project, something behind the wall that maybe leads to or causes a delay in re-opening or finishing the job,” Sigman said.

Kirchhofer says he hopes these projects remain on time.

“If things go as planned, hopefully everyone can work in unison, it’ll benefit all of us in the long run,” Kirchhofer said.

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