REVIEW OF THE U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS RESTRUCTURED UPPER MISSISSIPPI RIVER-ILLINOIS WATERWAY FEASIBILITY STUDY
John J. Boland, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering
Johns Hopkins University
Chair, Committee to Review the Corps of Engineers Restructured
Upper Mississippi River-Illinois Waterway Draft Feasibility Study
Water Science and Technology Board
Transportation Research Board
National Research Board
The National Academies
Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment
Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
U.S. House of Representatives
June 24, 2004
Good morning Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee. My name is John Boland. I am a professor emeritus in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. I currently serve as the chairman of the Committee to Review the Corps of Engineers Restructured Upper Mississippi River-Illinois Waterway Draft Feasibility Study of the National Research Council. The Council is the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine of The National Academies. The Academies operate under an 1863 charter from Congress to advise the government on matters of science and technology. Our committee was assembled last year in response to a request from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. We produced an initial report early this year and are scheduled to produce two more reports, one of which is due later this summer, with a final, summary report due early in 2005. The committee’s next report represents a work in progress and, as such, I will limit my remarks this morning to summarizing key findings and recommendations from our first report.
The Upper Mississippi River-Illinois Waterway system has been described by Congress as a nationally significant ecosystem and a nationally significant commercial navigation system. Deterioration of either attribute is a loss to the nation. Moreover, these attributes are inter-connected; actions taken to enhance one often degrade the other. The committee was gratified to see the Corps recognize these issues by designing a navigation improvement/ecosystem restoration feasibility study so that all effects of all actions can be taken into account.
As most of you are aware, the impetus for the Corps of Engineers feasibility study is the congestion that towboats experience at several locks on the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway system. There are a total of 37 locks and dams on this system and all but four main chambers are 600 feet in length. Much of the system was constructed in the 1930s. Towboats that travel on this system push multiple barges and three-quarters of all tows are typically longer than 600 feet. This requires that tows be de-coupled in order to pass through a 600-foot lock chamber in two separate lockages, or as “double cuts.” The commercial navigation industry asserts that a modernized system, including new locks of 1200 feet, will eliminate these double cuts and enhance the passage of today’s longer tows through the lock and dam system, will thus ease congestion and reduce shipping delays and costs, and will thereby help ensure the competitiveness of U.S. grains in global grain markets. In its feasibility study, the Corps of Engineers is assessing the economic justification of replacing or extending thirteen locks on the Upper Mississippi River-Illinois Waterway system that currently experience significant delays. This is a complex analytical issue and the Corps of Engineers is considering several factors within its study, including the potential economic benefits of lock extensions, future levels of U.S. grain exports, and the prospects for promoting ecological restoration within the Upper Mississippi River-Illinois Waterway system. I will summarize the major findings and recommendations of our group’s first report and will then be pleased to address questions you may have about our committee and its first report.
The Corps of Engineers has developed a simulation model, called “ESSENCE,” to estimate future levels of cargo shipped on each pool of the waterway system, levels of waterway congestion, changes in shipping costs, and other factors related to the economics of future shipments and other commodities. The model is intended to convert a change in congestion (due to lock extension, for example) into an estimate of economic benefit. This type of economic modeling of commodity movements in an area as large as the Upper Mississippi and Illinois region is largely unprecedented, and the systems approach that the Corps has employed in this modeling effort represents an advance over previous methods. Fundamental flaws within the assumptions and functional forms used in the ESSENCE modeling framework, however, render its results of no use within in the feasibility study (this finding essentially replicates a finding from an earlier NRC committee that reviewed the feasibility study as it stood in 2001). The Corps is also employing a Tow Cost Model to help in the calculation of benefits of lock extensions. The committee has learned more about the “TCM” since its first report and it intends to issue comments on this model in our next report.
Our report also provided advice on how the Corps could improve its efforts in the realm of economic modeling. The improvements recommended, such as the gathering of additional data on U.S. and global grain market supply and demand factors and shipping rates, cannot be realized overnight. In order to provide the Corps adequate time to assemble these and other data and incorporate them into a credible modeling framework, our committee also recommended that the schedule for completing the feasibility study be relaxed. Our committee is acutely aware of and greatly respects the desire by many to move the feasibility study forward with dispatch. Decisions such as lock extensions on the Upper Mississippi River will always be surrounded by large degrees of uncertainty, and these decisions should not be indefinitely postponed in a never-ending quest for more and better data. Those decisions, however, should be based on the best scientific and economic data and models available. Our concern with regard to the study schedule was that it would not allow the Corps the time necessary to create a credible spatial equilibrium model.
Reliable forecasts of future grain exports are important to good investment decisions on the Upper Mississippi-Illinois system. The Corps contracted with a private firm—Sparks Companies, Inc., of Memphis, Tennessee—to create a set of long-term scenarios for future U.S. grain exports. The Sparks report offered five future scenarios. Four of those scenarios project future growth of U.S. grain exports, with the fifth scenario predicting slightly declining levels. Such predictions naturally contain great amounts of uncertainty; a forecast(s) of U.S. grain exports 10 years into the future is full of uncertainties, which become even larger as projections are extended farther into the future. A forecast of future increases in U.S. grain exports is by no means implausible, and four of the five forecasts in the Sparks report call for increases in grain exports. But these forecasts must be considered in light of the past 20 years of relatively stable levels of U.S. grain shipments. This apparent discrepancy has prompted skepticism within our committee but we reserved judgment on the scenarios until after we spoke with the authors of the Sparks Companies report. We had a very informative exchange with the authors in St. Louis in December 2003 and we intend to issue comments on these scenarios in our next report.
The current system for managing waterway traffic on the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway system operates largely on a first-come, first-serve basis. It is possible that more systematic, nonstructural traffic management measures could result in improved management of the existing system and help reduce congestion on the waterway. A variety of measures could be employed, such as a scheduling system or a fee levied upon users of the locks during high-traffic periods. Until a system for better managing existing traffic levels is employed, it is not possible to accurately determine the benefits of lock extensions. The Corps should proceed as soon as practicable toward developing and implementing nonstructural means to help alleviate waterway traffic congestion.
A large portion of the feasibility study is devoted to prospects for restoring some aspects of river ecology on the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway. These plans for “restoration” have evolved considerably since the feasibility study was initiated over ten years ago, including many developments since our first report that we are likely to comment on in our next two reports. The Corps’ plans for ecosystem restoration within the feasibility study generally consist of a very large menu of possible “projects” that could be implemented. Some means, however, must be devised to prioritize efforts aimed at enhancing ecological conditions across this river system. That is, the possible number of actions is very large; resources for all these proposals would not be immediately available; and such efforts will necessarily proceed on different schedules, with a range of operations and implementation strategies and considerations. Modern theories of river science, supported by reports from other National Research Council committees and within the scientific literature, hold that the restoration of natural processes is the key to increasing the productivity of altered ecosystems such as the Upper Mississippi River. Examples of these processes include a river system’s natural cycles of high and low flows and the connectivity between a river channel and its natural floodplain. The restoration of some degree of these natural processes holds the best promise for significant improvements to river ecology in the Upper Mississippi-Illinois system. Priority should therefore be given to restoration projects that aim to restore natural processes.
Ecosystem restoration actions on the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway will be conducted in a setting of ecological changes and uncertainties. The ecological conditions of the river system will continue to change, scientific knowledge of the system will evolve and improve, and there are likely to be shifts in social preferences regarding the management and trade-off decisions of the river’s resources. Given this variety of unknowns, management actions designed to meet social and economic objectives should aim to be as flexible as practicable. Monitoring the outcomes of management actions and explicitly using this knowledge to help inform future actions will enhance adaptability in managing this river system. This approach is generally referred to as “adaptive management” and it is being used by the Corps and other federal agencies in a variety of settings across the nation, including this feasibility study. The concept presents its own set of challenges, but it currently represents the most promising approach for resource management in large complex ecosystems such as the Upper Mississippi River-Illinois Waterway system. Adaptive management also holds promise in helping integrate the navigation and ecosystem components of the feasibility study. The Corps should thus implement the adaptive management approach through all aspects of the planning process.
In closing, let me note that, even as the committee has gathered information and refined its judgments regarding parts of the feasibility study, the study itself has undergone rapid change. During the last six months, the Corps has altered many aspects of the study and introduced new elements. The committee's second report, due later this summer, will address those changes.
Mr. Chairman, that concludes my remarks and I wish to thank you and your colleagues for inviting me to speak with you today. I would be pleased to discuss questions that you or your colleagues may have about our committee’s report.