Navigation and restoration projects provide value to the Upper Mississippi River, Upper Midwest
Wade Carr, St. Paul District mechanical engineer, and St. Paul District Kim Warshaw, project manager, discuss the Lock and Dam 4 tow rail project in Alma, Wisconsin, Feb. 9. USACE St. Paul District photo by Patrick Moes (Photo Credit: Patrick Moes) VIEW ORIGINAL

The Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program, or NESP, is a long-term program of navigation improvements and ecosystem restoration for the Upper Mississippi River System. The program spans three Corps of Engineers districts: St. Paul, Rock Island and St. Louis.


In 1986, the Upper Mississippi River System was declared by Congress as a “nationally significant ecosystem and a nationally significant commercial navigation system.” This led to a navigation study in 1990 that looked at the constraints of the navigation system and the effect of increasing locks to allow bigger locks and improve efficiencies in the navigation system, according to Terry Birkenstock, chief of regional planning and environment division north.

In 1993, The Upper Mississippi River - Illinois Waterway System Navigation Feasibility Study was initiated to further study waterway improvements.

“During these studies there was controversy from the environmental community,” said Birkenstock. “They wanted equal expenditure on ecosystem and navigation, so they agreed to collaborate and attend the public meetings.”

Coupled with recommendations from the National Research Council and based on input from a federal agency task force, the study was restructured in 2001 with the goal of an environmentally sustainable navigation system that ensured efficient transportation for the future. The report was finalized and signed in 2004.

In 2007, Congress authorized NESP in the Water Resources Development Act, Title VIII. The first dual-purpose program of its kind to enhance and improve the Upper Mississippi River System.

“After that, it was on the back burner,” said Birkenstock. “Industry and other organizations have been lobbying Congress for years to fund construction and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, or BIL, finally made it happen. The appropriations from the law, signed in January, will propel projects to modernize navigation on the Upper Mississippi River System and restore the environment.


With money coming in from the BIL there’s a lot of potential for future environmental projects said Kimberly Warshaw, project manager. The St. Paul District plans to award a contract for the Pool 2 Wing Dam Modification project in December, which would be the first ecosystem restoration program under NESP.

Warshaw said there are two more projects that could start construction as soon as 2025: the Pool 3 Northern Sturgeon Lake project and the Wacouta Bay project. Both these projects will also include collaboration with engaged partners, Prairie Island Indian Community and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for Sturgeon Lake and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for Wacouta Bay.

“It’s exciting to work with the Rock Island and St. Louis Districts to determine how this program will operate for the next 15 years,” said Warshaw. “If we’re able to execute NESP, it will lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in ecosystem restoration projects in the three districts, adding value to the Upper Midwest.”