Our extensive water transportation system in the United States may very well be one of our greatest national economic and strategic assets. It is definitely our most unappreciated means of moving goods because the vast majority of the population doesn’t see river transport in action, smell it, or risk getting run over by it.
That’s also the downside. People will support road projects all day because of our personal engagement with the asphalt and concrete, but ignore our most efficient and environmentally safe means of moving critical goods from coal to corn to construction materials.
So it is concerning that a critical part of our nation’s transportation infrastructure, the locks and dams along the Illinois River and the Upper Mississippi River, are deteriorating and falling behind technologically after 80 years of stalwart contributions.
Granted, this oversight may be understandable given the public and government’s focus on political issues from war to health care and economic issues that don’t need any explanation, but the consequence for this lack of vision may carry a big price tag in years ahead.
The country’s inland navigation system plays a critical role in the nation’s economy, moving more than a billion tons of domestic commerce valued at more than $300 billion per year. More than one billion bushels of grain (about 60 percent of all grain exports) move to export markets via the inland waterways each year.
Growing agricultural productivity in the U.S. and growing populations and buying power overseas provide some clues to the critical importance of addressing this issue. Population is expected to grow by 2.5 billion more people by 2050 to more than 9 billion people and many of those hungry eyes will be looking to the U.S. to keep their pantries and their stomachs full.
There are also significant environmental benefits to the inland waterway system. The backwaters created by the lock and dam system support more than 40 percent of the migratory water fowl and fish breeding grounds and are home to more than 500 miles of wildlife refuge. In addition, more than $1 billion are generated each year in recreational use – fishing, hunting and tourism.
So if the opportunity arise to tell your local, state or federal elected officials they need to get active now on updating our water transportation system it will be time well spent.