Conversations with Corps Colonels

corps mapThe COVID-19 pandemic laid bare in the United States the value of the food supply chain. As agriculture confronts the ongoing, dramatic challenges, the Illinois Soybean Association (ISA) is engaging various partners about the importance of investment to strengthen that infrastructure.

That includes the river system and waterways that move Illinois soybeans to export locations.

“Half of the Illinois soybean crop is exported as whole beans and another 10 percent is exported as value-added soy and livestock products,” says Paul Rasmussen, ISA district director from Genoa, Ill. “About one-third of Illinois soy moves to port by rail, primarily to the Pacific Northwest. The majority is moved by barge to terminals in Louisiana. The container market, an important growth component of our exports, accounts for five to eight percent.”

Scott Sigman, ISA transportation lead, stresses efficient soybean movement requires attention to freight and infrastructure details. “Everything is linked across overlapping, complex supply chains that integrate many roles. ISA works with private and public stewards of infrastructure, like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to facilitate transportation to export terminals,” he says.

Navigation and management of flooding risk are common missions of the Corps districts that touch Illinois in supporting the nation's waterways and developing water resources. In the words of Corps colonels, here’s a look at what they do and its impact on Illinois soybean farmers.

Rock Island District

rock island districtCol. Steven M. Sattinger has been commander and district engineer of the Rock Island District since May 2018, overseeing locks and dams from Dubuque, Iowa, to Hannibal, Missouri, on the Mississippi River and also Illinois River navigation. Other areas include flood and emergency management, regulatory, environmental protection, restoration and recreation.

Activities that benefit Illinois soybean farmers. Last year’s flood fight, which was the second or worst flood we have battled, affected every levee district in Illinois. I am happy to report all levees held on the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. That took teamwork with local communities. No agricultural land was flooded by levee breaks, saving tens of millions of dollars in crop value. When it got dry last July, there was three times the usual sedimentation in the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers from the floods. We performed massive dredging before fall so there were no long closures and only minor grounding for fewer outages for soybean transport.

Future plans that support Illinois soy transportation. The Rock Island District is involved with the rehabilitation of five locks and dams on the Illinois River that closed this summer from LaGrange to Dresden Island. Closures are varied with anticipated down time of three to four months. LaGrange is a major rehab and replacement, Peoria is scheduled for gate and machinery work, Starved Rock and Marseilles are getting new miter gates and Dresden Island is also set for new gates. The work will help locks and dams operate reliably for another 50 years. We will not have another round of significant closures for about three years. The Mississippi River is under routine maintenance this year with dredging and managing other tough engineering challenges.

Chicago District

chicago districtCol. Aaron W. Reisinger, as commander of the Chicago District, is responsible for water resources development in the Chicago metropolitan area. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the district. Both the Corps and City of Chicago share a lot of history and have worked hand-in-hand solving many problems through the years. The district was instrumental in leading the Chicago area through a buildout of medical resources for COVID-19.

Activities that benefit Illinois soybean farmers. Recent realignment of the Chicago District improves unity of service and gives the district a more robust navigation mission. We now maintain three locks in Illinois: the Chicago Harbor & Lock, Lockport and T.J. O’Brien Lock & Dam. There has been no disruption of service on the waterway due to this realignment. Our district grew from about 4,000 square miles to more than 26,000 square miles. It includes the entire Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS), which ends just below the Lockport lock as it flows into the Des Plaines River. Lockport is the entry and exit point for traffic along the waterway in the Chicago District’s area of operations.

Future plans that support Illinois soy transportation. The Chicago Area Waterway requires infrequent maintenance dredging to maintain sufficient depth for navigation. Most of the waterways were constructed by cutting channels into bedrock. The constructed channels are extremely stable and not susceptible to significant bank and bed erosion that create dredging needs on other waterways. The waterways experience significant flows during flood conditions, so most portions are self-flushing and do not experience frequent shoaling.

For lock and dam assets, periodic inspections and operational condition assessments establish a decent baseline for maintenance prioritization. Lockmasters at each site and their employees are subject matter experts on day-to-day operations and maintenance. Usually the upgrading of smaller critical components and assets are performed locally. Maintenance of larger assets usually comes from a district-owned maintenance section. Our engineers play a key role at each district to ensure alterations make to assets will not impact asset operation negatively.

St. Louis District

st louis districtDeputy Commander Major John Miller assumed his role working with Col. Bryan K. Sizemore in August 2019. He supports the district commander and a civilian and military workforce for the area almost equally divided between Missouri and Illinois. The district maintains navigation on the Middle Mississippi River, lower Illinois River and the Kaskaskia River via locks and dams.

Activities that benefit Illinois soybean farmers. We are working with 15 levee districts in Illinois under the levee rehabilitation program to complete repairs from the historic 2019 flood event at a total cost of $24 million. The Nutwood Drainage and Levee District was the most severely damaged levee on the lower end of the Illinois River. We expedited planning and construction of a temporary berm there to provide a 20-year level of protection. This allows the levee district to work with the state and pump out the interior of the levee district without fear of inundation. Final repair this summer includes using borrowed material from local landowners to fill the scour hole and rebuild the levee in its original footprint.

The district also recently replaced miter gate anchorages at Locks 24 and 25 which had been in service almost 80 years and were identified as high risk. The risk-based approach used in prioritizing major repairs prevents unscheduled, catastrophic closures from emergency failures. Other recent improvements that benefit soybean farmers include increased reliability and efficiency in dredging efforts and replacing or repairing numerous aging navigation components.

Future plans that support Illinois soy transportation. We continue working toward a smarter, safer and more efficient transportation system which will be able to meet growing demand for waterborne transportation. We are advancing design efforts for a new 1,200-foot lock chamber at Lock 25. Additional funding could be used to modernize and accelerate the construction.

St. Louis is the transition where the Mississippi River flows freely to the Gulf of Mexico, meaning no restrictions to tow size created by lock chamber dimensions. The Congressionally authorized Regulating Works Project on the Mississippi between its confluences with the Missouri and Ohio Rivers has a high benefit-to-cost ratio through the reduction of dredging each year and creates tremendous safety benefits for commercial navigation. Rock pinnacles at Thebes, Illinois, which posed great risk to navigation, have been removed.

Louisville District

louiseville districtCol. Antoinette Gant assumed command of the Louisville District in July 2017. Established in 1886, Louisville is one of the most diverse districts touching Illinois with military, interagency and international services, environment and civil works construction and missions. Ohio River navigation is a key function affecting Illinois soybean farmers. The district does not have flood control or recreation functions in Illinois, rather it is composed of built-up local drainage districts. Non-navigable duties include the Vermillion, Embarrass, Wabash and Skillet rivers.

Activities that benefit Illinois soybean farmers. We maintain seven locks and dams on the Ohio River to ensure commodities move efficiently. Recent work on the Olmsted Locks and Dam allows soybeans to now move on the lower Ohio River without delays from the aging infrastructure at Locks and Dams 52 and 53. Demolition of the marine portion of Lock and Dam 52 will be complete by September 2021. Phase I marine demolition of Lock and Dam 53 concluded in November 2019 and Phase II is scheduled for completion in late 2021.

Future plans that support Illinois soy transportation. We are engaged with representatives for the Russell-Allison-Ambrau and Sainte Marie agricultural levees to prevent breaches. Other levee systems can request rehab assistance following floods if levee systems are maintained to federal standards. If drainage district water issues related to flooding along the river/existing levees for counties covered by the Louisville District occur, our regulatory program includes permitting work in streams and wetlands that are Waters of the United States. We also manage calls concerning neighboring farmers building private levees that push water on other properties as these projects may require permitting if the levees are built in Waters of the United States.

In addition to these Corps districts, Cairo, Illinois, drainage districts in Alexander and Pulaski counties are managed by the Memphis District, but it has no river navigation duties.