After 16 years and $70 million of study, the Corps of Engineers is about to release a proposal for speeding navigation and restoring natural habitats along the upper Mississippi River.


In May, the Corps will issue a draft report with a proposal for the "upper Miss" and Illinois Rivers that could cost $7.7 billion over 50 years. Up to $2.5 billion would go for lock and dam expansions and $5.2 billion for environmental restoration. "The preferred alternative is one that we think best serves the public and is fiscally responsible," says Lt. Gen. Robert Flowers, chief of engineers.

The plan takes a phased approach, asking Congress initially to authorize only preliminary engineering and design for lock and dam work. Engineering would cost tens of millions of dollars, some of it to be done by contractors and some by the Corps. Other early items would be some environmental projects, plus mooring "cells" and boats to aid barge traffic at locks.

Flowers says moving to the design phase while Corps’ economic models are "refined" is prudent, "because...the system that’s out there now is past its design life and you could have a any time."

BOTTLENECK Plan includes design to extend seven locks.

The study has been controversial. In 2000, the Army Inspector General said a senior Corps officer manipulated an economic analysis for the study and two others "created a climate" that led to that action. The three denied the allegations. In 2001, a National Academy of Sciences panel said the Corps did not adequately weigh less expensive alternatives and said economic models’ assumptions and data had flaws. Flowers halted the study for more than a year, restarting it in 2002.

Much of the cost would be for doubling seven locks to 1,200 ft. They date from the 1930s and 15-barge tows must be split to pass through. For the environment, Flowers says the Corps is asking whether it can try to "replicate the original conditions on the river." Design firm HDR is "strongly supportive of expanded Corps infrastructure as well as the environmental work," says Larry Bory, vice president.


But there’s a long swim ahead, with public meetings and a final report in late summer. A chief’s report then will get Bush administration review. Funding would be up to Congress.

Environmentalists are irate. Melissa Samet, American Rivers’ senior director of water resources, says the plan holds restoration "hostage to a $2.3-billion boondoggle." Critics say the Corps did not prove the need for the lock work. They favor better traffic scheduling.