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Army Corps Navigation Study nears completion
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Lee Nelson runs Upper River Services, a barge company in St. Paul. For the past 12 years Nelson has supported a plan to modernize the locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi. (MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)
A near capacity crowd is expected Monday evening at the Holiday Inn ballroom in Davenport, Iowa. Attendees will be among the first to comment on the Army Corps of Engineers blueprint for the future of the Upper Mississippi River. The plan outlines proposed improvements for the locks and dams, and for the environment. Later this week, the agency will hold similar meetings in LaCrosse and Bloomington. It's been twelve long years in the making, but now it appears the Army Corps Navigation Study is on the verge of completion.

Rochester, Minn. — Lee Nelson runs Upper River Services, a barge company headquartered on the edge of the Mississippi in St. Paul. As cars whiz along a nearby highway, Nelson checks out an empty barge, recently brought in for cleaning.

"The barge, once its been washed, will be allowed to dry and then it will go a grain terminal where it will be loaded with corn or soybeans and then sent to the gulf for export," Nelson explains.

For the past twelve years Nelson has tracked the Army Corps of Engineers Navigation Study. He's been a firm supporter of one of its cornerstones -- an expansion of the Mississippi's locks and dams. Nelson says that would ease congestion and allows goods transported by barges to get their final destination more efficiently.

With a lop-sided grin, Nelson says even though the Army Corps report lays out detailed plans for the expansion, he's not predicting an easy passage.

"I guess I won't be surprised if someone somewhere tries to stall some more. We've gone on 12 years because some people are never going to be happy unless they get everything they want," says Nelson. "It's 'Let's delay everything else.' Maybe that will happen. I can only have faith in the system. We all put the system down plenty of time, but it's the best one we know of."

Barge owners are just one of the groups that will be affected by the final outcome. Others include environmental organizations, state and federal agencies, farmers, and the folks who use the river for recreation.

Because the fate of the Upper Mississippi touches so many, it's not surprising the study has been the subject of controversy.

When the Navigation Study began back in the early 1990's it was purely about moving barges up and down the Mississippi. The intent was to determine if economic activity on the river justified a modernization of the locks and dams. They were initially constructed back in the early 1900's as part of Roosevelt's New Deal, and many in the barge industry argued it was time for an overhaul.

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Image Dan McGuiness

Corps data seemed to support that claim. But then in 2000 scandal struck. The project's lead economist accused the agency of cooking the books to justify an expansion. After Don Sweeney released his whistleblower report, Congress ordered a halt to the Navigation Study.

When Congress finally reauthorized the study, it was charged with a new mission. The current Navigation Study takes a two-pronged approach to the river's future. It's a plan for navigation changes as well as ecosystem improvements. All told the study has cost some $70 million.

As the process draws to a close, the Army Corps is proposing more than $2 billion for modernizing the locks and dams, and more than $5 billion for the environment.

Dan McGuiness heads the Audubon Society's Upper Mississippi Campaign. He's spent chunks of the past few summers sailing up and down the river examining how it's doing. He says thanks in part to the current lock and dam system, many of the Mississippi's backwaters are filling with sediment, crowding out native vegetation and animal life.

McGuiness says that's just the beginning and it will take billions to fix the problems.

"I like to say if you took the river and looked at its potential as an ecosystem you have about 2.5 million acres stretched from Minneapolis to Cairo, Illinois," says McGuiness. "Thirteen hundred miles of river and then up to the Illinois, and what do you do? And I think part of that we'll continue all to work on. We'll try some things in the next few years but all of the right ingredients are there. Our best estimate as this point is between $8 and $10 billion in the next 50 years to restore 80 percent of what we think is possible."

But McGuiness concedes it's unlikely the federal government will spend the money he believes the environment needs.

Supporters of improved locks and dams also doubt the Feds will spend a lot on their proposals.

As the study moves onto Congress there's no telling how much money will be appropriated. And with the environment and navigation scheduled to be funded independently it's possible one will receive more than the other.

Right now money's tight in Washington and there are other high profile Army Corps projects already underway including the large scale Florida Everglades restoration plan.

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Image Kevin Bluhm

But there are also other issues that have taken priority for the Army Corps -- things like the war in Iraq and homeland security.

Kevin Bluhm has spent the past 12 years working on the Navigation Study at the Army Corps headquarters in St. Paul. He says the plan breaks down funding into 15-year increments. He's optimistic at least some of the money will come through. But Bluhm says there are a lot of factors to consider.

"Real world tells us that if we look at all the constraints and the other big picture projects that are going on, we're competing with a lot of stuff and its going to take longer than 15 years to get that kind of funding in," says Bluhm. "I'm not saying it can't be done but a realist would say there are other important things."

This is a busy time for Bluhm. His tiny cubicle is filled with stacks of paper and several computers all primed to help with the final phase of gathering public input. He hopes substantial crowds will turn up at public meetings up and down the river. And he says those he can't come should submit their comments on the Army Corps proposal through email or by regular post.

By the end of the summer the study should be on its way to Washington. Corps officials are expected to sign off on the plan and from there it's onto Congress for evaluation. But actually getting the money to complete the projects is far from guaranteed.

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