The huge increases in U.S. grain production only highlight the need for a strong program for maintaining and upgrading the nation’s systems of locks and dams to facilitate barge transportation on the Mississippi River and inland waterways, says producer-ginner R.D. James, A.C. Riley Cotton Co., New Madrid, Mo.

“When 70 percent of the nation’s soybeans, 62 percent of the corn, and 22 percent of our domestic petroleum are transported by barges, we need a strong federal commitment to keep this system open and functioning,” he told Rep. Travis Childers, D-Miss., at the summer meeting of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association at Biloxi, Miss. “It’s unfortunate that some of our ports and harbors may have to close, when agriculture is one of the few positive contributors to this nation’s balance of trade.”

The newly-elected congressman was invited to attend the sessions to hear concerns of farmers and ginners.

James serves on the seven-member oversight committee for flood control of the Mississippi River Commission, established in 1879, which provides water resources engineering direction, and policy advice to the administration, Congress, and the Army in a drainage basin that covers 41 percent of the United States and parts of two Canadian provinces.

The commission is charged with overseeing the comprehensive river management program known as the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project, the largest flood control project in the world, covering the 36,000-square mile lower Mississippi Valley. It also seeks to facilitate navigation and promote commerce on the vital water artery.

Waterborne commerce on the Mississippi River has increased from 30 million tons in 1940 to nearly 500 million tons today.

The 4,267 miles of commercial waterways and locks/dams are a vital component of this country’s transportation system, James says.

“Barges are a far more economical method of shipping than rail or truck; the nation’s shippers save $3 billion a year by moving their goods by barge. The typical barge can move 750,000 bushels of corn; that same amount would require 870 trucks.”

Barge traffic will be increasingly important for transportation of petroleum and other energy forms, he says. “Pipelines and railroads are already at maximum capacity, and building new facilities is difficult because of environmental and other regulatory requirements.

“There’s a lot of room to grow traffic on the Mississippi and other inland waterways,” James says, “but maintenance and improvement of locks, dams, and other facilities are critical to insure the most efficient barge usage.”

Of the 29 locks and dams on the upper Mississippi, he says, “27 are past their design life and in varying stages of disintegration. It’s disheartening what’s happening to the infrastructure on the Mississippi River.”

Childers, whose district abuts the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway on the eastern border of Mississippi, said, “The Tenn-Tom and the Mississippi River are two of the nation’s finest waterway systems and a vital part of this country’s transportation network.

“For 14 of the last 17 years, I’ve served on the Yellow Creek Inland Port Authority of the Tenn-Tom. I have a keen interest in the nation’s waterways, and I’m committed to supporting this vital system.”

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com