Hey there Paddle Forward Crew! My name is Alex and I am also studying environmental studies along with my classmates at Augsburg College! This summer I was able to attend a ten day canoe trip down the Mississippi with my class and Liz, starting in St. Paul to Winona, Minnesota. Now back at school, it is fun to follow along with the Paddle Forward crew and relate their experiences on the Illinois to my own experiences that were on the Mississippi. While we were on our trip we saw many issues along the River and similar issues have been noted on the Illinois trip. Something that was interesting to me was the process of dredging and the use of barges along the river.
First off, dredging is the process of removing sediment and debris from the bottom of bodies of water. Dredging is used as a way to maintain depth and increase depths of channels used for navigation. The nine foot channel used on the Mississippi River and mouth of the Illinois is maintained by the United States Army Core of Engineers (USACE) and requires that the navigable channel be at least 9 feet deep and a minimum width of 400 feet to allow large barge tows to pass through the river. It is important for our economy that these barges travel through the Rivers because they carry about 15% of the United States freight. In the United States there are about 30,000 barges on our country’s waters which equal to about one billion dollars in goods per year. Barges tend to carry items in bulk because the cost of transporting goods on a barge rather than truck, rail, or airplane is very low. Goods they tend to be transporting include coal, grain, chemicals, trash, sand and gravel, materials that can be recycled and minerals like iron ore.
Although the nine foot channel has allowed our economy to transport goods efficiently by the use of barges, the creation of the nine foot channel and barge usage has had negative effects on rivers. For example, when a body of water must be dredged to increase the depth of a channel, the sediment and mud is vacuumed out. It must then be placed somewhere, but where? Along the Mississippi River we saw a few dredging operations and the outcomes of dredging operations. What usually happens after something is dredged is that the sand and sediments get put on islands creating huge piles of sand that sometimes equal well over hundreds of acres. The sand piles then destroy wildlife habitat and precious wetlands. Besides the fact that they look out of place, the USACE is constantly maintaining river channels because whether it be the Mississippi or Illinois River, the water is constantly moving and changing.
Barges also create problems to environmental health when they are damaged and left abandoned on water ways. Since it is not a priority of the USACE to find the owners of the abandoned barges they are often left to erode and pollute the water. The barges then become sites of dumping grounds of hazardous materials depending on what they were supplying and potential risks of oil spills. Since the Abandoned Barge Act of 1992, there has been an increase in barge clean up, but we still see abandoned barges on the water today. When the Abandoned Barge Act was passed it did not provide money for administration or removal of barges making the act almost ignored at times. It states that the owner has a certain time frame to remove barges from waters if they are no longer functional, but it is often hard to locate ownership of barges since many of them do not have to be officially registered. In 1997, there was 160 abandoned barges on the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois Rivers. The removal of two barges alone that contained hazardous material cost around $500,000. People may not like the high costs of removing barges, but people also do not like they eyesore of a rusting barge in a beloved river.The channelization of rivers has helped the United States economy find cheaper ways to transport goods, but at the expense of the river. If it were possible to find alternatives for the sand use after the dredging process or have stricter guide lines of barge abandonment, the river could increase its aesthetic beauty and become a healthier environment for all people and animals to enjoy.