The St. Paul District is near the finish line in its winter maintenance projects on the Mississippi River.
The construction projects vary in scope but are all focused on safety and improving navigation ahead of the upcoming shipping season, said Jim Rand, St. Paul District locks and dams chief.
Rand said the Mississippi River navigation channel is vital to the nation’s economy and national security. He added that two of the current winter maintenance projects will also improve lock safety for both Corps of Engineers lock operators and navigation employees.
Lock and Dam 4, in Alma, Wisconsin, is one of the locks undergoing winter maintenance to improve the lock safety. The lock is one of six locks that is receiving an upgraded tow rail system to safely tow boats upriver. The system sits on a rail and helps move barges out of the lock chamber. Rand said that a 15-barge tow needs to be separated, or cut, at each lock due to size constraints within the lock chamber. He added that the lock chamber can only support six barges and the tow boat at the same time. If the complete tow has more than six barges, it needs to be separated during the lockages and then connected once all of the vessels pass through the lock. The tow rail system ensures remaining barges separated from the tow are safely secured on the lock wall while the tow boat and remaining barges complete the second lockage.
Kim Warshaw, project manager in charge of the maintenance work, said the project is all about safety – for both the Corps of Engineers staff and navigation crews. She said the work in Alma and an additional effort at Lock and Dam 7, near La Crescent, Minnesota, are a part of a $20.5 million contract that includes repairs at Lock and Dam 5 near Minnesota City, Minnesota; Lock and Dam 5A, near Fountain City, Wisconsin; Lock and Dam 8, near Genoa, Wisconsin, and Lock and Dam 9, near Lynxville, Wisconsin. Warshaw said a separate contract was awarded to Kraemer North America, out of Plain, Wisconsin, for tow rail rehabilitation at Lock and Dam 6, located near Trempealeau, Wisconsin.
Warshaw said the construction projects are replacing a system that was originally built in the 1950s - 1960s. “Like anything else, these locks are nearly 90 years old and require routine maintenance to ensure they continue performing as designed,” she said.
The required maintenance is necessary to ensure the system continues to safely move bulk commodities to regional and national markets. “Maintaining the Mississippi River navigation channel provides significant savings to shippers and is one of the most environmentally friendly modes of transportation,” Warshaw said.
Disrupting the barge shipping season has a huge impact on the shipping industry, she added. A one-day maintenance delay at Lock and Dam 6 could cost the shipping industry nearly $40,000; a three-day delay could cost approximately $350,000 and a five-day delay could cost almost $775,000.
Warsaw said there were 1,636 commercial lockages at Lock and Dam 4 in 2021. “The commercial lockages accounted for 7,880,695 tons of commodities,” she said. “You would need approximately 71,000 rail cars or 315,000 semi-trucks to move the same amount of material.”
The winter maintenance completion is scheduled for mid-March, Warshaw said.