The Dam That Was Too Big to Hide: Part 2
// Written by Brad Walker, Rivers Director October 17, 2013
Unexpected direct and indirect actions affected the process surrounding the approval, development and construction of a facility to replace the original Locks and Dam 26 on the Mississippi River at Alton, Illinois, which significantly altered how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers planned their projects after 1970. The facility that became known as the Melvin Price Locks and Dam (named after the local Congressional Representative who was involved in getting it built) was at the forefront of the transition from a Corps that had very little oversight and essentially zero public input, to an agency operating increasingly under the skeptical scrutiny of the public. The Melvin Price project was equally important in the transition away from a process that ignored the impact of large-scale projects on the environment.
Had it not been for the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 citizens would not have the rights they have today to engage in the project planning process and to gain access to government documents that allow them to fully understand why a project is being planned, how much it might really cost, who it primarily benefits, and whether there will be public benefits. Maybe most importantly, the law provided a stick that the public could use to protect the environment and counter the growing influence of special interests on the use of their taxes.
Through opposition to the project, the Melvin Price saga revealed well hidden truths that needed serious vetting by Congress and public scrutiny. We will cover several of them here:
12-Foot Barge Channel
When opponents to the expansion of the Alton locks to 1,200 feet in length claimed the project was just the first part of the Corps plan to deepen a large segment of the Upper Mississippi River (UMR) and the Illinois River 9-foot deep channel to a 12-foot channel, the Corps’ defense was to simply say it had no such plans, that it would be to expensive (if all of the costs were actually charged to a deepening program), and that it had no authorization to allow that channel modification. However, it is difficult to ignore the statements contained in the pre-1970 reports drafted for either the expansion or replacement of the existing Alton Locks and Dam 26 regarding a 12-foot channel.
Contradicting later Corps denials, in reports and other documents dating from 1958 a change to a 12-foot depth was contemplated on the UMR and Illinois River. For example in the St. Louis District’s 1966 Report on Replacement on Lock & Dam 26 the lock sill depth was established at 18 feet rather than the 12 foot depth of the existing dam’s locks and the report states that this depth would “increase the project depth from nine to twelve feet”.
In the 1968 report 15-foot sill depths were to be used at the two 1,200-foot locks. “This would increase the present project depth from nine to 12 feet.” (p. A-9) The report also mentioned that a study was underway “to determine the advisability of providing a practical navigation channel of 12-foot depth” on both the UMR and the Illinois River. (p. 3)
The Corps later went through several gyrations explaining the need for the deeper sills other than for a 12-foot channel, which lacked credibility, especially when compared with documentation from the Ohio River Navigation Modernization Program that was ongoing since the 1950’s and which was replacing existing dams with fewer and larger dams having 1,200-foot locks. The Ohio River Basin Comprehensive Study stated “Preliminary estimates are that after completing the replacement plan 95 percent of the Ohio River will have a minimum channel of 12 feet.”
- Congressional Authorization for a New Facility
It became obvious relatively quickly in the early 1970’s that the Corps had no legal Congressional authorization for constructing a new locks and dam facility at Alton, Illinois. The U.S. District Court’s granted injunction in 1974, prompted by the opponent’s lawsuits, stated that Congressional authorization was, per law, specifically required for a new facility. The Corps then sought and ultimately received the needed Congressional authorization in 1978. This also begs the question; did the Corps receive Congressional authorizations prior to making the replacement of over 50 locks and dams on the Ohio River with new larger dams and 1,200-foot locks at a cost of well over $1 billion in taxpayer funds?
- Ecosystem Restoration and Mitigation
The National Environmental Policy Act’s requirement for Environmental Impact Statements played a major role in getting much improved mitigation of environmental damages at the sites of new projects. It was the exposure of the proposed new facility at Alton and the concerns for increasing impacts to the river cause by more barge traffic generated by opponents of the project, especially on the second lock, that created the atmosphere for establishing the UMR Environmental Management Program (EMP). This is not in anyway to diminish the immense contribution that the state and federal natural resources agencies provided. However, without the public exposure and the pressure it placed on Congress, EMP would likely never have happened in the face of the Corps’ Assistant Secretary opposing it. EMP was groundbreaking in its composition of programs that provided both habitat restoration and scientific data gathering and monitoring. Although its funding remains inadequate and after more than 25 years the UMR and Illinois River remain far too degraded, Congress has at least recognized EMP’s success’s and importance.
- Mitigation of Cumulative Impacts
Several lengthy documents and important policy decisions were made regarding the cumulative environmental effects of the existing barge traffic volume and the volume projected by the Corps for the new locks and dam facility at Alton. The documents include the UMR Comprehensive Master Plan, Great River Environmental Action Teams Reports (GREAT I and II), Environmental Impact Statements for both the single lock facility and the second lock, and the revised Major Rehabilitation Program (MRP) for UMR and Illinois River Locks and Dams. The policy changes are documented in the Inland Waterways Authorization Act of 1978 and the Water Resources Development Act of 1986.
- Inland Waterways Trust Fund
Although there were proponents within Congress who saw the problem with the complete subsidization of the Inland Waterways System (IWS), it would have been extremely hard to pass any legislation requiring the barge and shipping industry to contribute to the funding of the IWS infrastructure entirely without public support. The opponents of the project brought needed public exposure over a decade through newspaper articles, reports and legal actions. Although the 1978 and 1986 legislation initiated the first sharing of the cost (50%) of rehabilitating existing and construction of new locks and dams, it did not force the industry to contribute to the major IWS expense – operation and maintenance.
The research for these two articles was rather humbling. To look back to the mid to late 1970’s and realize that the conservation and environmental groups made the same arguments using the very same facts that we use today, such as the issue of river circuity and units trains showing the superior fuel efficiency of freight rail compared to barge transportation, was enlightening. I was also reminded that is there is so much useful and essential information that is not on the Internet and can only be found in hard copies of aging documents. Absent the articles and reports found in overlooked file cabinets, the conclusions drawn below could not be made.[wpanchor id=”L&D26 Tonnage”]Without the railroads and nonprofits exposing the costs and impacts of Corps projects, no one would have challenged the veracity of the Corps’ overly optimistic barge traffic projections (See graph created using Corps report data) that were being used to justify the lock expansion. Melvin Price Locks and Dam would likely have had two 1,200-foot locks and several other dams upstream would likely already have 1,200-foot locks – all at the total expense of the public. As can be seen from the chart below, the peak volume at the Alton Locks and Dam occurred in 1990, the year after Melvin Price (single 1,200-foot) Lock and Dam opened.
On the environmental and social sides of the ledger, it’s likely that the EMP and other natural, recreational and area educational facilities like Riverlands that we all benefit from today would not resemble what exists or may not exist at all.
This is not hyperbole.
An October 28, 1989 article by the St. Louis Post Dispatch titled “Corps of Engineers Brave New World” put into context the impact the opponents of the new Alton facility had. Below is the article’s opening and closing comment:
“Thanks to environmental lobbyists over the last decade, the new Lock and Dam 26 on the Mississippi river will show what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can do to protect wildlife and its natural habitat along a major water project when it has to. And Congress has said it has to. This approach should mark a new attitude on the part of the corps that broadens its perspective from purely pork-barrel water projects.”
“It’s about time – and it took a lot of public interest work and a determined Congress to make the change.”