Late spring snow lingered on bluffs next to the Mississippi River as a tug from Little Rock, Arkansas, slowly crept northward, pushing a dozen empty barges.
Sitting high out of the iced tea-colored water, it was heading to the Twin Cities to pick up corn and grain harvested last fall, before turning around and traveling to New Orleans. The grain would ultimately head to Asia or South America.
The 12 barges had to split into two sections to float through Lock and Dam No. 7 near La Crosse. One at a time, slowly, each section moved through the 600-foot-long lock and rose 4½ feet before reconnecting.
The Mississippi River has moved goods from one place to another for centuries. Sometimes called America's Central Coast, the Upper Mississippi, from St. Louis to the headwaters in Minnesota's Lake Itasca, generates almost $600 billion in annual economic activity. The entire 2,300-mile river is used to transport 60% of all grain products in America, the world's No. 1 grain producer.
The system of 29 locks and dams ensures a relatively orderly flow up and down the river.
But the system is in dire straits.
The river's infrastructure is deteriorating faster than it's being replaced. When most of the locks and dams were built in the 1930s, engineers estimated their lifespan at 50 years.
Do the math. The lock and dam system so critical to American commerce is way past its expiration date.
Further, the amount of goods traveling on the Mississippi River is expected to increase by more than 20% by 2050.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has managed to maintain and repair the locks and dams, but the agency estimates its backlogged maintenance costs at more than $1 billion. Should any lock or dam fail long-term, it could create havoc for U.S. commerce.
Further, a new system would have longer locks — 1,200 feet, the size of a 15-barge tow — to prevent the kind of inefficiency caused by breaking barge tows in half to get them through.
"They're fabulous structures given what they've done. But it's time," said Ernie Perry, principal investigator of a recent University of Wisconsin-Madison study examining how agriculture products would move to markets if the locks and dams closed.
The chronic underfunding for Upper Mississippi locks and dams has been going on for decades. Congress authorized construction of seven new 1,200-foot locks at the river's most congested spots in Missouri and central Illinois in 2007 at a price tag of more than $2 billion. One problem: It didn't provide the money. More than a decade later, they still haven't been built.
President Donald Trump's proposal for infrastructure funding released a few months ago was vague but hinted at private-public partnerships, meaning less federal oversight and the possibility of fees. The locks have always been free and shipping companies say they could go bankrupt if required to pay fees.
Crumbling infrastructure
Water is the cheapest and easiest way to move big, heavy objects. Consider the tug heading up to the Twin Cities with a dozen barges.
"If this 12-barge tow had three more barges, (a common load on the Upper Mississippi River), you would need 1,000 trucks on Highway 55 and I-90, or two 100-car trains, to carry the same load," said Patrick Moes, spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers St. Paul District.
UW-Madison's Perry is administrator of the Mid-America Freight Coalition at the National Center for Freight Infrastructure Research and Education.
His report outlining how goods would get to their destinations without the Mississippi River is stark. Traffic jams. Cracked pavement. Crumbling infrastructure.
For the study, Perry focused only on transporting southbound agriculture products by truck. Assuming a one-season shutdown across the Upper Mississippi region, between 9.1 million and 12.4 million tons of agricultural goods would need to find another way to move to markets. That's the equivalent of 367,000 to 489,000 truckloads — with an additional cost of $283 million.
Perry found that many of the roads semitrailers would have to travel are rural and not designed for heavy loads. With pavement damage from the increased truck traffic, costs would go up an additional $28.8 million.
And that's only a portion of the goods — just agricultural products — that travels along the river.
Pollution would increase, too, because barges account for a much smaller carbon footprint than rail and trucks. Perry's study estimated an additional 212,000 tons of carbon dioxide would be created if trucks carried all the agricultural products normally moving on the Mississippi.
By the time the Mississippi River reaches St. Louis, the waterway widens and tows pushing more barges travel in both directions. Perry saw a photo a few years ago showing a tow pushing 42 barges hooked together. That one load represented 18,000 acres of soybeans harvested in Missouri.
"You look at the value of one barge — My God, it's tremendous. We're not talking small potatoes here," Perry said.