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Boatloads of Water Problems

Matt Swanson cares deeply about the reliability of the U.S. waterways infrastructure because it affects his bottom line.

“If there’s a shutdown on the river and we’re supposed to be shipping grain and we don’t have our basis set, that comes straight out of our pockets,” says the farmer from La Harpe, Illinois, which is 15 miles from the Mississippi River and less than 70 miles from the Illinois River.

“We grow 99% non-GMO grain for export, both corn and soybeans,” he explains. After harvest, typically in the fall or spring, the grain is shipped downriver on a barge. 

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), one 15-barge tow can transport 937,387 bushels of corn. This is an efficient way to move large volumes of product while using less energy and reducing road and rail congestion.

Illinois farmer Matt Swanson
Photo Credit: Matt Swanson

“Our beans are going to South Korea mostly, and most of the corn goes to Japan,” Swanson adds, explaining his heavy reliance on the river system.

Swanson says he’s not alone. His part of the state doesn’t have the number of processing plants seen in other areas, and there’s not enough livestock in the region to consume much of the grain. “The basis in our area would be drastically different without a functioning river system,” he adds.

This article is the second in a three-part series looking at the role of transportation and infrastructure in the agriculture industry. We’re taking a look at the systems used behind the scenes to get agriculture products from gate to plate, pod to pump, and dock to dish.

In this story, we’ll take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of the transportation systems moving U.S. crops and inputs through waterways and ports.

Infrastructure report card showing American Society of Civil Engineers' grades for ports, inland waterways, and dams


“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” says a well-known proverb.

Compared with other links in the transportation system, ports are in decent shape. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) graded U.S. ports with a C+. The same report says 99% of overseas trade passes through ports, which are responsible for $4.6 trillion in economic activity, more than a quarter of the U.S. economy.

However, weak links in the transportation chain like roads and rail are preventing ports from reaching their full potential. A survey of U.S. ports found that one third blame congestion on the landside over the last 10 years for a decrease in productivity of 25% or more.

New, massive ships also present challenges. The ships being used today are more than 14 times larger than container ships used in 1968. Navigation channels need to be dredged (deepened), and larger cranes must be installed to accommodate bigger vessels. The container yards and power supplies need to be upgraded in most ports, too.

The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF), which was set up to pay for dredging harbors and other upkeep, collects money through a user fee based on cargo value. Even though most U.S. ports have significant dredging needs, this fund is often used for other purposes, including federal deficit offsets. It has been estimated that the USACE needs to receive full HMTF funds for at least five years to catch up the backlogged dredging.

Inland Waterways

The U.S. has 239 locks along 25,000 miles of inland waterways. According to the ASCE report card, these waterways and locks earned a D grade and face a mounting backlog of repair and maintenance.

“Most of the locks and dams on the system are well beyond their 50-year design life, and nearly half of vessels experience delays,” the report says. The average delay per lockage (the process of moving a barge through the lock) jumped from one hour to two hours between 2000 and 2014. 

This system is critical for many grain farmers, including Swanson. A study by the Texas Transportation Institute found 60% of grain exports are moved by barge. Other products important for agriculture, such as iron and chemicals, are also shipped via the inland waterway system.

Aaron Dunlop with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Photo Credit: David Ekstrom

Aaron Dunlop is the operations project manager for the Mississippi River Project for the Rock Island District of the Army Corps of Engineers. Most of the locks in his district were built in the 1930s with a 50-year design life. Most have undergone a major rehab, extending their life about 25 years since.

Surprisingly, the technology the locks use is not obsolete. In fact, because this elevator system for boats relies mostly on gravity along with levers and valves to operate, Dunlop says it’s a little easier for his team to work on. Yet, the physical structures are showing their age.

“We are in sort of a dire situation because of the age of the facilities,” he says.

In addition to the maintenance challenge, some of the locks need to be upgraded to stay efficient. Many locks on the upper Mississippi River aren’t large enough to fit an average 1,200-foot-long tow. The barge tows must be split up every time they go through a lock.

“They’ll break that tow into nine barges and lock the first nine barges upriver. Then the remaining six barges along with the towboat will lock up in the second cut. That process takes about three hours for each towboat, so you can imagine, as they travel from lock to lock, how much extra time it takes, and time obviously equates to money and being able to get these commodities to market,” Dunlop explains.

Barge locking through the Mississippi River in Rock Island, Illinois
Photo Credit: David Ekstrom


While dams aren’t specifically used to transport ag products from place to place, they are very important to the agriculture industry for irrigation, flood control, and hydropower. According the ASCE, 18% of the National Inventory of Dams serve flood control.

Like other water-related infrastructure, the 90,580 dams around the U.S. are showing their age. The average age of dams in the U.S. is 56 years, which is part of the reason ASCE gave U.S. dams a D grade in its 2017 report. 

Nearly 15,500 of those structures were flagged as high-hazard potential. If a dam is categorized as high-hazard potential, that means dam failure is expected to cause loss of life.

Another 11,882 dams have been deemed significant-hazard potential. Dams with that label are not expected to cause loss of life if they fail, but they still could cause devastating economic loss.

The ASCE reported it will cost nearly $45 billion to fix and update the aging high-hazard potential dams.

In addition to funding repairs, the society recommends emergency action plans be put in place in case of a dam failure or uncontrolled release of water. The number of high-hazard potential dams with an action plan has been on the rise.

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