7 Locks Would be Extended, Including #21 at Quincy, Ill. (Photo courtesy of Corps of Engineers)

The Corps of Engineers' study for $3 billion in Mississippi River lock improvements and ecosystem restoration shows major improvements over earlier versions, but still has serious problems, a National Academy of Sciences panel says.

The 79-page academy report, released Oct. 6, deals with the Corps' feasibility study to double the length of seven locks on the upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers at an estimated cost of $1.7 billion.The plan also includes $1.2 billion in environmental improvements. Those are the core of the 15-year first phase of the Corps' proposed 50-year, $7.7-billion program for the two rivers.

The panel, convened by the science academy's National Research Council at the Corps' request, states that the agency has "made substantial progress on the [feasibility] study during the past three years." But it adds that "the study contains flaws serious enough to limit its credibility and value within the policymaking process."

Even if it makes changes to satisfy the NRC panel, the Corps still needs money from Congress to build whatever will be built on the rivers. Authorization for the program is tied up in water resources legislation on Capitol Hill. The House has approved its version, but in the Senate, a bill has only cleared committee.

Brig. Gen. Robert Crear, commander of the Corps' Mississippi Valley Division, said, "The NRC panel has provided important information and recommendations that will assist in developing the adaptive implementation plan for both navigation efficiency improvements and ecosystem restoration.


The Corps has employed a "reasonable approach" to estimating benefits of the expanded locks, the panel says, but adds that "the scenarios of future waterway traffic levels remain problematic." Specifically, it says the Corps had only one forecast of non-grain shipments and that one of the models used to estimate benefits of the lock expansions uses a demand curve that "has no empirical foundation." As a result of the problems, the report says, "Economic feasibility for any of the navigation alternatives has...not been determined."

The NRC review also says that while the Corps' recent Upper Miss study pays more attention than before to non-structural strategies for improving barge traffic along the rivers, its plan "still lacks adequate analysis in this realm." It adds, "The failure to fully consider nonstructural measures precludes any statement about the desirability of structural measures."

Still, the NRC panel says the Corps' current approach of carrying out the river work in phases is "an excellent framework for comprehensive adaptive management." It says that if the Corps gets the funds it needs and makes improvements in its study, many of the problems it outlined can be rectified.

Last year, the Corps asked NRC to review its Upper Miss plan. The review panel issued a report earlier this year on the Corps' 2002 interim feasibility study. The latest NRC report covers an April 29 "draft integrated feasibility report." One more review is coming from the NRC panel in early 2005.