The Dam That Was Too Big to Hide: Part 1
Written by Brad Walker, Rivers Director October 7, 2013
A huge block of concrete looms in the Mississippi River just south of Alton, Illinois. It’s the Melvin Price Locks and Dam, and its story flows like a reality TV show. The US Corps of Engineers (Corps) had plans to build the $1 billion project completely under the public’s radar; but a burning river, leaking oil platforms and toxic housing sites helped derail the rush for the big dam.
First some background on who does what on our rivers.
Since before our nation was formed, the Corps has been considered by many as the premier waterways organization in North America. It started by surveying and mapping our rivers, then clearing the rivers of tree snags for steamboats, and finally by constructing navigation dams and locks to accommodate much larger steel barges.
The Corps does not have the sole responsibility for our rivers though. Instead, several agencies share jurisdiction for what occurs in and near our rivers. The Corps is generally responsible for river navigation on what shippers call the Inland Waterways System (IWS), flood risk reduction (a more accurate and modern term for flood control), and building and managing reservoirs (especially in the central and eastern U.S.). It also has other shared responsibilities for recreation and water supply. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been charged with protecting our rivers from pollution since its creation in December 1970. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has responsibility for maintaining and operating national fish and wildlife refuges in our rivers including the Upper Mississippi River (UMR) Fish and Wildlife Refuge, created in 1924, which stretches north 284 miles from Rock Island, IL to Lake City, MN.
Most of the 30 navigation locks and dams that make up the UMR portion of the Inland Waterways System were authorized by Congress. The Corps managed lock and dam construction during the 1930’s as a jobs program to help move the nation out of the economic woes of the Great Depression. Locks and Dam 26 at Alton, Illinois, completed in 1938, was the first to contain two locks, one 600-foot long and the other 300-foot long. See our webpage here for additional information on the Corps and their work on our rivers.
Expansion of Locks and Dam 26
Because of increased barge traffic, by the mid-1950’s the upper Mississippi barge industry was asking the Corps to construct a 1,200-foot lock at the dam at Alton. The Corps was already busy working on the Ohio River Navigation Modernization Program replacing most of the existing locks and dams with larger dams and 1,200-foot locks at each. This request prompted the Corps’ St. Louis District to contract with the engineering firm of Tippetts, Abbott, McCarthy and Stratton (TAMS) in 1958 to prepare an engineering and economic report in order to to justify a new 1,200-foot lock. The enlarged lock proposal never went beyond the district level. A second report was drafted by the St. Louis District in 1964 but the Secretary of Army rejected the report because there had been no hearings held by the Corps and the economic data was 10-years old. The District prepared a third unused report in 1966.
In 1968 it was decided at a level above the St. Louis District that because of projected barge traffic growth two new 1,200-foot locks would be required at Alton. It had also been decided that the existing Locks and Dam were structurally unsound and that it would cost as much to rehabilitate them, so a replacement locks and dam should be constructed. The St. Louis District completed a twin 1,200-foot lock and dam facility design later that year. The Secretary of the Army approved the Locks and Dam 26 Replacement plan in June 1969.
Six months later the world changed. On January 1, 1970 President Nixon signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that required Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) for major government projects. This law gave American citizens and nonprofit organizations the rights to legally engage in policy review and the project development process on our nation’s waters.
The timing became inconvenient for the Corps’ plan to build the replacement locks and dam since they had to comply with the new law and prepare an EIS. The Corps apparently planned a streamlined effort by completing the Draft EIS in May 1974 and the Final EIS a month later in June. Congress must have also believed that it was going to be smooth sailing because they appropriated funds for the new twin 1,200-foot locks and dam project in 1974.
Railroads and Nonprofits Oppose the Project
On August 6, 1974, before construction bids were opened for the twin 1,200-foot locks and dam project, 21 railroads, the Sierra Club and the Izaak Walton League filed suits in U.S. District Court in an attempt to stop the project. A month later to the day, Federal Judge Charles Richey suspended the design work on Locks and Dam 26 Replacement project. The court cited two primary issues: The first concerned the lack of Congressional authorization and the second concerned the EIS. The Corps relied on Section 6 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1909 that allows the Secretary of the Army to approve the repair of an existing structure. However, Section 9 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 required Congressional authorization when an entirely new project was being proposed. Secondly, the court agreed with the plaintiffs that the Corps’ Final EIS was likely inadequate.
Rather than fight the injunction the Corps spent the next two years reevaluating the project including sending alternatives to the Board of Engineers for River and Harbor (BERH) for review. BEHR recommended in 1976 a new dam with only a single 1,200-foot lock due to the uncertain environmental impacts that would be caused by two 1,200-foot locks. The Corps also redrafted its Draft Supplemental EIS in June 1975.
After receiving the approved Chief of Engineers’ report on the new single 1,200-foot Lock and Dam project, in August 1976 the Secretary of the Army recommended that Congress authorize the new dam project and provided them with a Final EIS and a proposed legislation. Many hurdles would continue to delay construction, however.
During 1976, impelled by Congress through the Water Resources and Development Act of 1976, the Corps assembled two river environmental study groups called Great River Environmental Action Teams (GREAT); GREAT I in the St. Paul District and GREAT II in the Rock Island District. These teams were to develop what they believed to be a balanced resource management plan for the Upper Mississippi River.
Congress Steps into the Fray
Over the next 26 months Congress held hearings on the new project. Because the Corps was no longer pursuing the twin locks projects the US District Court concurrently dissolved the primary injunction granted in 1974.
At least three nonprofit groups, including Missouri Earth Advocate, Sierra Club, and The Coalition on American Rivers (Champaign, IL), published lengthy reports in 1977 discussing their specific concerns regarding the project. The actual structural condition of the existing dam came into question. The US Department of Transportation, the Illinois DOT and others challenged the need for a new dam and some even offered alternate designs for its rehabilitation. Another major claim emerged that the Corps had a plan for deepening the existing 9-foot barge channel to 12-feet deep and adding 1,200 locks at dams upstream of Alton on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois River.
On October 21, 1978 Congress supplanted the conversation on the need for a replacement dam by authorizing a new dam – designated 26R – with one 1,200-foot lock in the Inland Waterways Authorization Act of 1978. The legislation included two other major requirements. For the first time the barge industry would help fund the construction of facilities on the IWS. Through a four-cent fuel tax on IWS barges and deposited to the Inland Waterways Trust Fund the industry would cover half the costs of Lock and Dam 26R. The Act also stated that there can be no expansion of the UMR IWS (another lock or other new facilities) prior to approval of the UMR Comprehensive Master Plan. The Plan would require studies of the environmental and economic effects of expanded barge and shipping infrastructure.
Congress appropriated funding for the single Lock and Dam 26R project in October 1979 and construction began the next month.
Primarily because Congress had authorized the new single lock project, the lawsuits and appeals by the railroads and nonprofit groups were dismissed in April 1981. The Corps then proceeded to build the new dam and the first 1200-foot lock at the new location downstream of Alton.
The Second Lock Returns
The Corps still wanted to construct a second a 1,200-foot lock at the new project.
In early January 1982 the UMR Basin Committee released their UMR Comprehensive Master Plan ordered by Congress, which recommended:
- Immediate authorization of 2nd 600-foot lock with a NEPA exemption
- Reducing erosion within and along the river
- Implementing a Habitat Restoration and Enhancement Program
- Implementing a Long Term Resource Monitoring Program
- Implementing an inventory and analysis data system for the river environment
- Implementing a recreation program
- Monitoring barge traffic movement
- Continuing dredge material disposal within the floodplain
- Evaluating economical reuse of dredged material
- Creating a cooperative arrangement to maintain, coordinate and manage resources activity within UMR System
A board of engineers approved the two GREAT Reports two months later.
In August 1985, Congress provided a tentative approval of a second lock at the new Lock and Dam 26 under construction south of Alton. Congress also ordered an extensive Environmental Management Program (EMP) on the upper Mississippi and that barge shipping infrastructure and the EMP were to be “on equal fiscal footing.”
During the next year conservation organizations continued their questioning of the need for a second lock at Lock and dam 26R since the single 1,200-foot lock would have a capacity of at least 100 million tons per year. The groups, particularly the Izaak Walton League of America, also questioned the Corps’ new Major Rehabilitation Program (MRP) for UMR and Illinois River Locks and Dams. The Corps originally asserted that the $300 million MRP was a navigation expansion program that needed no Congressional authorization and the Corps also ignored the requirements of NEPA in determining its systematic impact upon the UMR environment. Due to the pressure from the IWLA, by mid-1986 the Corps decided to “modify key aspects of a $300-million plan to rehabilitate most of the 26 navigational locks and dams on the UMR”, thus avoiding litigation.
Congress Boosts Second Lock Over Final Hurdles
With its passage on November 17, 1986, the Water Resources Development Act of 1986 settled the fate of the second lock. In the bill Congress approved the UMR Comprehensive Master Plan. Specifics included formally creating the UMR Environmental Management Program; the approval of the second lock at Lock and Dam 26R; requiring the monitoring of traffic movements on the system for the possibility of future system expansion; providing an UMR recreational project authorization including conducting an assessment of the economic benefits generated by recreational activities in the system; increasing the capacity of specific locks within the UMR IWS through nonstructural measures; making minor structural improvements; and studying effective reuses of river dredging material.
The Corps continued to develop its Draft EIS (DEIS) for the second lock. In December 1986 EPA rated the DEIS as “Category 3 Inadequate” and provided numerous comments to the Corps. In November, 1987, after adjusting the DEIS to accommodate reviewer comments, the Corps released its Draft Supplemental EIS, which was still considered insufficient by US Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of Illinois and nonprofit conservation organizations primarily for its failure to respond to system wide environmental mitigation required from expanded barge traffic. Finally, in November 1988 the Corps agreed to take specific steps to minimize potential environmental damage. As a result, the IWLA then decided to drop plans to sue the Corps.
On December 7, 1988 the Corps issued its Record of Decision regarding Melvin Price Locks and Dam. Its plan for the Second Lock included the intent to perform studies evaluating barge traffic and the impact of expanded barge traffic upon the river’s ecosystems and to monitor the impact of implemented mitigation measures. This allowed construction of the second lock to proceed.
On October 10, 1989, 33 years after the barge industry began asking for a 1,200-foot. lock at Locks and Dam 26, the Melvin Price 1,200-foot Lock and Dam became operational. The opening of the second 600-foot lock at the facility followed on June 18, 1994.
Part 2 of this article will examine the impact of the new environmental laws and the advocacy of conservation organizations upon the Corps and its water resources development process.
Note: This history is based upon documents available to MCE. There are undoubtedly other documents that could fill in some gaps. We believe that the article portrays the history of the Melvin Price Locks and Dam accurately with the information we have.