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Illinois River locks reopening after major project

Ed Metz/Hemera/Thinkstock barges carrying grain down river
River barge tows
Next project includes upgrading and extending locks to 1,200 ft. chambers so modern tows may pass.

The LaGrange Lock & Dam at Versailles, Ill., on the Illinois River reopened last week after a major maintenance project to rehabilitate the lock and dam during the summer of 2020. The 12 million tons of food and agricultural commodities that leave the state via the LaGrange Lock will resume, just in time for harvest 2020 sales.

Other locks on the Illinois River -- including Starved Rock Lock & Dam, Marseilles Lock & Dam and Dresden Island Lock & Dam -- are scheduled to reopen after major rehabilitation on Oct. 29. The Peoria Lock & Dam opened on Sept. 30.

Illinois Corn Growers Assn. (ICGA) president and Minonk farmer Bill Leigh said, “The river systems we enjoy here in Illinois on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers are hidden gems that allow Illinois farmers to be very competitive selling our commodities out of the state. Access to a newly maintained system will be a very exciting prospect for Illinois farmers along the Illinois River.”

He continued, “Next on our list, we look forward to the locks being upgraded and extended to 1,200 ft. chambers, which will allow modern tows to go through the locks without breaking in half, making the system much more efficient and timely.”

Funding for lock and dam upgrades is on the horizon, with the potential to begin pre-engineering and design on a lock on the Illinois River or Mississippi River in 2021. This budget development is now possible after lobbying efforts from ICGA and its partners to reprioritize and reallocate federal and industry funding.

ICGA has led the effort to modernize and upgrade the locks and dams in Illinois, with the topic being one of the top two concerns of ICGA members for the last 15 years. ICGA hosted barge tours in 2000-10 to raise farmer and stakeholder awareness of the issue and has been lobbying for lock and dam funding since 1995.

ICGA executive director Rodney Weinzierl said, “Our farmer members understand that the Illinois, Mississippi and Ohio rivers are one of the biggest advantages we enjoy in Illinois. We have access to these efficient transportation networks year-round, and they make us the largest corn export state in the union. Investment in the locks and dams on the inland waterways system is a game changer for Illinois corn farmers.”

Illinois has 1,100 miles of navigable inland waterways, ranking it eighth in the nation. The inland waterways transport $1.8 billion of cereal grains (including corn). In 2018, a total of 83 million tons of freight valued at $13.2 billion moved on the Illinois waterway system. Also in 2018, Illinois ports, inland waterways and inland waterway-dependent industries supported 236,000 jobs, $15.5 billion in personal income and $2.1 billion in state and local tax revenue.

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