Army Corps reaffirms Illinois & Mississippi River plans

BYLINE: Dori Meinert Copley News Service

DATELINE: WASHINGTON

BODY:
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Thursday reaffirmed its intent to move forward with a costly and controversial plan to lengthen two locks on the Illinois River and five on the Upper Mississippi River as well to improve the area's ecosystem.

The Illinois River locks are at Peoria and LaGrange.

As expected, the Army's chief of engineers approved a plan virtually identical to the final plan that was released in September after a summer of public hearings.

The plan now goes to the secretary of the Army, who will submit it to the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Congress must also approve the plan. While lawmakers from states near the two rivers are strongly supportive, the cost could be an obstacle in Congress next year.

The plan has been criticized by several expert panels including the National Research Council, which in October concluded the corps didn't make a credible case for construction of the project. It found little evidence that grain exports would increase enough to justify the project.

"I am confident that over time our approach will enable us to overcome their concerns," Lt. Gen. Carl A. Strock, the Army's chief of engineers, told reporters in a conference call. "We believe that it is critical to the future of the nation's economy and this important natural resource that we move forward on this important effort. In today's economy, we must take every opportunity to give our farmers the competitive edge of getting their products to market in the most efficient way possible."

The lock and dam expansion is supported by farm groups and river users. But it's opposed by several environmental and taxpayer advocacy groups.

Supporters argue that current 600-foot locks are too short for today's 1,200-foot-long barge assemblies, which must be decoupled to move through. Opponents say that quicker alternatives to construction exist. For example, establishing a river traffic schedule would eliminate delays, cost much less money and do less damage to the environment, they say.

"Hopefully, Congress will recognize that Congress has far more important priorities than building locks for barges that will never come," said Environmental Defense's Scott Faber.

The first 15-year segment of the river improvements would cost 3.61 billion including 1.8 billion for the lock and dam expansion and $1.6 billion for ecosystem restoration. Another $235 million would be used for small-scale navigation measures as well as monitoring traffic and economic conditions.

In November, Congress approved $13.9 million for the corps to begin engineering and design work on the project. But Congress must authorize the project in separate legislation before any funds can be spent on actual construction.

Negotiations over a bill to authorize this and other water projects around the country ran out of time this year and the Water Resources Development Authorization bill must be re-introduced next year.