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By Wessley Johnson – As if COVID-19 was not enough this summer, a full river closure and a halt to shipping on one of the nation’s busiest river systems is imminently approaching.
The Illinois River system connects the supply of goods with domestic and international markets. This system of navigable water stretches roughly 333 miles, beginning with the Calumet River in Chicago and ending with the mouth of the Illinois River at Grafton, Illinois.
Inland barge transport is accessible by a 9-foot-deep navigational canal, which is actively maintained by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). The river system connects the Great Lakes with the Gulf of Mexico, responsible for transporting goods from coal, chemicals, petroleum, and an assortment of agricultural products.
To regulate proper navigation of the Illinois River and control safe transit locking systems are strategically placed throughout the river. Specifically, there are eight locks along the Illinois, which most were brought into operation in the early 1930s.
With the age and natural need for repairs, the USACE has already begun short closures of consolidated repair, having started in 2019. These closures will continue into this year, starting July and running through October. Further out continued closures will occur in 2023.
The final set of funding for this year’s closures of five locking systems was received on April 20th. Work at Peoria Lock and Dam will be completed by USACE maintenance crews, while all the other sites will include a combination of construction contracts and USACE maintenance crews.
Closures on the Illinois were strategically selected to coincide with typically lower river levels and outside the harvesting season. Project dates are subject to change based on high water levels. A water level of 445.0 at Peoria and 434.0 at La Grange would submerge lock walls and possibly delay work being performed. Navigation though at these sites would not be affected, because La Grange and Peoria have wicket portions of their dams which can be lowered to allow for boats to transit through during high water.
The specific locks and closure dates are listed below followed by detailed construction to be performed:
Dresden Island Lock & Dam – (partial closure July 6th through October 3rd and October 25th through October 28th, full closure will occur October 4th through October 24th) Located at mile 271, repairs will include the installation of upper bulkhead recesses.
Marseilles Lock & Dam – (full closure July 6th through October 29th) Located at mile 245, repairs include the installation of new upper miter gates, which requires the installation of a new concrete sill and miter gate anchorages. The lock chamber will be dewatered for maintenance and inspection.
Starved Rock Lock & Dam – (full closure July 1st through October 29th) Located at mile 231, repairs include new upper and lower miter gates, which again will require installation of a new concrete sill and miter gate anchorages. The lock chamber will be dewatered for maintenance and inspection.
Peoria Lock & Dam – (full closure July 6th through September 30th) Located at mile 158, repairs include miter gate anchorages to be replaced, a new miter gate bubbler system to be installed and other maintenance tasks will be performed. The lock chamber will be dewatered for maintenance and inspection.
La Grange Lock & Dam – (full closure July 1st through September 30th) Located at mile 80, repairs include major rehab and replacement of miter gate machinery. This will include a significant amount of concrete replacements and essentially an overhaul of the entire lock chamber.
The response to the closures has been deliberate and strategic in delivery. This closure has proven more impactful because of the design of the locks. Where other rivers may have a dual locking design, i.e. when one lock chamber is inoperable the other can be utilized, this is not the case. The Illinois River locks have a single system, thus when shut down, the river is impassable for inland barges.
Leading the charge with information has been the USACE. Planning and coordination of the closures has been ongoing for four years, with a primary goal of providing as much advance notice as possible to those who have a vested interest on the waterway. The information released to the public has been provided in the form of presentations and updates to a wide range of stakeholders and media outlets. During the closure, the USACE will conduct weekly meetings informing barge companies and other vested parties of the lock repair status.
Barge companies following news from the USACE have been for over the past year, notified customers accordingly of the shutdowns. Many have sent out personalized reports and advised customers on how they will react and how equipment can be used for their needs.
Working very directly with most barge companies, I have witnessed most responses. The majority of companies have implemented a date of having all non-essential equipment, either boats or barges off the river. For instance, most have a deadline in place of June 20th.
To alleviate hiccups in the supply chain, both producers and barge companies have been preparing mitigation measures to ensure a seamless transition. One measure witnessed is the steady stream of loaded barges that have been moved onto the river prior to closure as floating storage to feed producer’s needs. Other measures involve the purchase of tank storage south of the river system. Here producers are moving commodities by truck and rail from storage locations to markets along the Illinois River.
Some producers are opting to shut down refining capabilities. Instead of navigating the headaches of supply disruption, they are using the opportunity for maintenance and repair of their facilities.
With the dependence on other means of transport, it would be expected that rates by these modes would increase and in fact, they have. Rail companies have moved and prepositioned other units to accommodate this increase. One commodity we have seen this with is ethylene glycol. Outside of the tri-state area, Chicago is one of the largest consumers of EG. The airport sits at the epicenter as the leading consumer, using the product for the deicing of aircraft during winter months.
Barge companies have reported the movement of equipment to the Ohio River to meet customers’ needs which have shifted off the Illinois temporarily. This fact is supported by a leading oil major who has increased production of Ethanol at their Mount Vernon refinery on the Ohio, where historically this refinery had operated at reduced capacity.
Past closures on other river systems have shown a rise in rates/tariffs prior to shutdown to offset costs – this has not been the case. One could expect though that rates may rise when locks close. The argument that barges used for floating storage are tied up and not available. The shortage in barges may create a supply deficiency, which could lead to increased rates. However, with Covid-19 and lack of demand at present, it remains uncertain if this will be the case. Equipment that is not utilized during the closure will be put into shipyards for inspections and maintenance.
Among all the natural headaches to be expected, barge companies have accepted the looming closures with positive stride. The free flow of information and early release of closure from the USACE has proven very beneficial and it is promising to see the government take an active role in maintaining the integrity of the inland waterway system.
Wessley Johnson is a marine broker at L&R Midland Inc. based out of Houston, TX. Wes has sailed domestically and foreign aboard oil tankers in various officer positions. Graduate of Norwich University with an MBA, concentration in finance, and a Bachelor’s Degree from SUNY Maritime College in Marine Transportation.
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