CHURCHVILLE, Va.-The old locks and dams that take millions of tons of freight and farm products up and down the Mississippi and Missouri rivers are crumbling. Farmers and barge owners want not only to rebuild the locks, but double their size. Currently, they're too small to handle the 15-barge clusters that ply the rivers. The tows have to be taken apart at each lock, adding several hours in transit time at each lock and millions of dollars per year in extra shipping costs. But the price tag on the project is about $1 billion, and Congress is not convinced it will buy the loyalty of enough voters to make it politically salable.
However, the nation's farm communities will earn billions of extra dollars every year from the increased capacity. Farmers also want the project because barges are by far the cheapest way to move heavy products in and out of America's Midwest. As nonfarm traffic increases, farmers are afraid their grain, oilseeds and fertilizers will be crowded off low-cost barges and onto more expensive trains and trucks.
Environmentalists oppose increasing the size of the locks. They claim that wakes from the barge-tows push sediment into side channels that are important wildlife habitat. The environmental argument against increasing the river barge capacity--additional ripples--looks pretty trivial. The wildlife on the river already puts up with barge ripples. It is accustomed to annual changes in the river level of 5 to 10 feet--and in 1993, a rise of about 15 feet! The wildlife is pretty resilient.
The bigger issue is that the world is desperately short of prime farmland. Lots of the world's soils are old and washed-out. That includes much of Africa, Asia, South America and Australia. Still more of the world's land is afflicted with poor climate--It's too hot, too dry and has too short a growing season. A huge proportion of the world's prime cropland is in America. And a large part of this land is in the Mississippi and Missouri watersheds, served by the small and crumbling locks and dams on the rivers. A peak population of nearly 9 billion affluent humans in the next century will need three times as much farm output. But the world has little good cropland that is not already being farmed; we'll need to triple the output from the good land we're already farming. Free trade under World Trade Organization rules has led to a 15-fold increase in nonfarm trade, but farm trade has not even doubled because of pervasive farm trade barriers. However, farm trade reform is likely to become an urgent environmental priority as Third World countries continue to get rich in the next few decades. The WTO is holding a farm trade reform negotiation starting this November aimed at knocking down the farm export barriers of 100 nations.
For the environment's sake, more and more of the Third World's grain, oilseeds, meat and milk should come from middle America. Without farm trade, densely populated countries like India and Indonesia will plow tropical forest and destroy huge numbers of wild species to produce their own food. The United States already exports more than 150 million tons of grain, oilseeds, meat, cotton, cattle hides and other farm products per year. A big proportion of that tonnage moves down the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. With free trade in farm products, the river's farm export tonnage could readily double in a decade.
However, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers isn't making any plans to support farm export expansion. It sees virtually no upward trend in farm exports and doesn't think the river tonnage will double until about 2050. It's not planning to expand the locks and dams until 2023. We must consider that the alternative to bigger locks and dams may be to plow down a million square miles of tropical forest for Asian food self-sufficiency, or build 2,000 miles of new double-track railroads from Minneapolis and Omaha, Neb., to the Gulf of Mexico. (Think of the steel and concrete involved in the railroads, and the huge increase in fossil fuels to move the farm products by train instead of by fuel-efficient barge.) The environmental maxim is to "Think globally, act locally." Thinking globally should encourage us to send the Army Corps of Engineers a message: Watch the WTO farm trade negotiations closely. If farm trade is liberalized, the Mississippi and Missouri will need to double lock and dam capacity far sooner than 2023.
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