Strock's 'chief's report'
sent to Army assistant secretary
(Photo by the Army Corps of Engineers)

An $8.3-billion, 50-year Corps of Engineers plan for Upper Mississippi and Illinois River lock and dam expansion and ecosystem restoration has moved a step forward. Lt. Gen. Carl A. Strock, the Army's Chief of Engineers, signed his "chief's report" outlining the plan late on Dec. 15 and has forwarded it to the John Paul Woodley, Jr., assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, for review. But the big hurdle lies in Congress, which must authorize the program and its individual projects and also provide annual appropriations before work can proceed.

The Corpshas been studying the "Upper Miss" and Illinois for 16 years at a cost of some $70 million. The overall 50-year plan now includes $5.7 billion for environmental restoration and $2.6 billion for navigation, including seven new locks and extensions to five others. The $8.3-billion total represents an increase of about $600 million from the Corps' draft report released last spring. A Corps official says the increase is due to indexing the projects' costs for inflation.

"We believe that it is critical to the future of the nation's economy and this important natural resource that we move forward on this important effort," Strock said in a Dec. 16 conference call with reporters.

In an apparent nod to the tight federal budget outlook, the chief's report endorses a phased approach to the massive program. The report focuses on a $3.61-billion, 15-year first phase that Strock says is "recommended for immediate authorization." That includes $1.79 billion for seven new locks, $235-million for non-structural and small structural projects to improve navigation and $1.58 billion for ecosystem work.

The seven new locks in phase one include five on the Mississippi and two on the Illinois. Under the plan, new 1,200-ft long lock chambers would be constructed adjacent to existing 600-ft-long locks. The five Mississippi locks are in a stretch from Canton, Mo., south to Winfield, Mo., which is about 80 miles upriver from St. Louis./P>

In a future phase, the Corps envisions 600-ft extensions to five other locks on the Mississippi at a total cost of about $800 million. The Corps official says, "Right now, the economics don't appear to be there" for building completely new 1,200-ft chambers at those five locations.

The Corps recently received some money to get started. In the omnibus fiscal 2005 appropriations package that was signed into law on Dec. 8, Congress provided $13.9 million for initial work. Those funds will cover preconstruction engineering and design for several items, including Mississippi Locks 24 and 25 at Clarksville and Winfield, Mo., LaGrange Lock on the Illinois River, two "significant" environmental restoration projects yet to be determined, fish passages at lock and dam sites and some small environmental restoration projects, says Ron Fournier, spokesman at the Corps' Rock Island District.

Strock also responded to an Oct. 6 National Research Council critique of the Upper Miss report. The NRC review said that while Corps had made improvements, its study to that point still had serious problems. NRC's review panel said the Corps' scenarios of future river traffic were "problematic" and that the agency didn't do adequate analysis of non-structural navigation improvements.

Strock said, "We recognize the need to improve our evaluations of economic and ecosystem restoration matters." But he said that the work should go forward while the Corps continues to improve its forecasting models and adapts the plan as conditions change. "I am confident that over time our approach will enable us to overcome [the NRC panel's] concerns," he added.

Strock also contended that the plan does seek to manage the river for navigational and environmental purposes, citing such examples as integrating dredging to maintain channels with building islands and restoring backwaters.

The Corps' upper Miss study has been controversial. In 2000, the Army's Inspector General said a senior Corps officer manipulated an economic analysis for the study and that two other officers "created a climate" that led to that alleged manipulation. All three officers denied the allegations.

In 2001, an NRC panel said the Corps didn't adequately consider less-expensive alternatives to the lock expansions and faulted the agency's economic models. That caused Strock's predecessor, Lt. Gen. Robert Flowers, to halt the study for more than a year before restarting it in 2002.