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Opinion: Investments in inland waterways keep agriculture competitive

As we celebrated Missouri’s Bicentennial last year, we were reminded of our heritage as the “Gateway to the West.” Wagon trains traversed the state as settlers looked for new opportunities. The Mississippi and Missouri rivers made it easier to move supplies westward to outposts and ship raw goods back east. Our rivers made Missouri the crossroads of our young nation.

Missouri Farm Bureau President Garrett Hawkins
Missouri Farm Bureau President Garrett Hawkins

Times have changed, but our rivers are just as important to our state’s economy. Twentieth-century improvements to make the rivers safer and more predictable were marvels of engineering and helped the American farmer dominate international trade. Unfortunately, we have grossly underfunded upkeep of our river infrastructure for many decades, and much of it has fallen into disrepair. For years, Missouri Farm Bureau has advocated for the federal government to invest in this critical infrastructure and modernize our river system.

In January, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would use money from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to make many of the upgrades our rivers need. These projects will positively impact generations of Missouri’s farmers by enhancing our competitiveness in the global marketplace.

The largest individual project will be a $732 million effort to replace Lock & Dam 25 at Winfield, a project long overdue. The project will include construction of a modern, 1200-foot second lock. This will allow for two-way traffic and reduce wait times from two hours to 30 to 45 minutes.

On the Missouri River, the Corps plans to devote nearly $316 million to repair damaged navigation structures from the record 2019 flood. This would fully cover the current maintenance backlog of structures from Sioux City, Iowa to St. Louis. Without this influx of repair money, it would take many more years for the river to return to normal operating conditions.

Getting our rivers back into top condition will speed up transportation and lessen the strain on our road infrastructure. One barge can carry over 50,000 bushels of soybeans. To transport the same amount by rail or road would take 16 train cars or 62 semi-trucks. Barges are often grouped into tows of up to 15 barges at a time. Each of these tows can take about 930 fully loaded semis off our highways. In addition, water transportation can provide significant cost savings, meaning cheaper inputs and higher returns for grain and other byproducts.

In the past two years, we have all learned just how important a strong, resilient supply chain is. Removing our rivers’ current shipping bottlenecks and upgrading our infrastructure for the future will help Missouri remain a global leader in agriculture for decades to come. These investments have been a long time coming, and their arrival is very welcome news to Missouri farmers.