The New York Times says the U.S. is wasting a renewable energy resource by not tapping the hydropower potential on the Mississippi, Ohio and other rivers. The January opinion piece comes shortly after Minnesota leaders decided last year to shutter two locks and dams which had at one time been considered as potential power generation sources.
“Electrifying just the 100 top impoundments — primarily locks and dams on the Ohio, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas Rivers that are operated by the Army Corps of Engineers — would generate enough electricity for nearly three million more homes and create thousands of jobs,” the Times says.
The paper also says that even the small percentage of the nation’s power that comes from hydropower is enough to power 30 million homes and keep 40 million cars a year off the roads, based on Department of Energy statistics.
There have been 19 applications filed for proposed projects on the Upper Mississippi River. Developers see potential power generation at locks and dams from Hastings, Minn., to Cairo, Ill., according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) which must approve the projects.
In Ohio American Municipal Power has put the first of four small hydro generators on line at the Willow Island Locks and Dam south of Pittsburgh. The other three plants that will be brought on line in the near future are also co-located at locks and dams.
In Kentuckyanother company will begin generating hydropower this year and the FERC has issued licenses for two more small plants at locks and dams on the Kentucky River. Planners say the plants will produce enough electricity for 100,000 homes and that there are more potential hydropower sites along that river and others in the U.S.
Meanwhile, In Minnesota, the Corps of Engineers says there were hundreds of recreational vessel lockages at the Upper and Lower St. Anthony Falls Locks and Lock and Dam 1 in 2015 before the forced closure of the upper locks.
And, as if to demonstrate their value,power generation from dams on the Missouri River was reduced last year because the Corps was holding water in upstream reservoirs to balance levels along the system. The six hydropower generators on the Missouri yielded 8.5 billion kilowatts last year, compared with 9.6 billion in 2014. The Western Area Power Association says it had to buy more expensive energy from other sources to make up the shortfall, costing rate payers about $67.5 million more.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is celebrating its sesquicentennial throughout 2016. See the Executive Director’s Column in this newsletter for more on that and on the history of the COE's St. Paul District.
Other items of interest:
- Patrick Moes at the St. Paul District of the Corps of Engineers advises Waterways that the Corps expects to begin taking Lake Pepin ice measurements this week. As in past years, weekly measurements will be posted on the District web site until the first tow breaks through.
- To celebrate its recent purchase of the famous Grain Belt Beer sign on Nicollet Island, the August Schell Brewing Company is releasing a new brew in April called, “Lock & Dam” named for another nearby landmark, the recently closed St. Anthony Falls Locks. The company says it will restore and relight the old sign.
- A group of river stakeholders, including the Waterways Council and Illinois Corn Growers are hosting the 9th annual Upper Mississippi River Conference in October in the Quad Cities. Sponsors say they will talk about addressing the issues raised by the D+ grade given the upper Mississippi by America’s Watershed Initiative last year.
- In addition to being upset over proposed cuts to crop insurance, the American Soybean Association says it will fight the Obama administration’s proposed cuts to the Corps of Engineers maintenance and construction budgets and NESP.
From the Executive Director . . .
St. Paul District Celebrates 150th Anniversary
While the history of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can be traced back to June 1775 when the Continental Congress organized an army with a chief engineer and two assistants, the St. Paul District was established in 1866, when Congress authorized the Corps of Engineers to establish a 4-foot navigation channel on the notoriously unreliable Upper Mississippi River. That task fell on Maj. Gouverneur Kemble Warren, a West Point graduate widely acclaimed for his leadership in the Battle of Gettysburg.
In Stewards of Headwaters, United States Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District 1975-2000, by Theodore Catton and Matthew Godfrey, the Mississippi River was described as meandering over 2,000 miles from Minnesota’s Lake Itasca to the Gulf of
Mexico that was described by Mark Twain as the “crookedest river in the world, … not a commonplace river, but on the contrary, ... in all ways remarkable.”
Commerce now includes recreation
Since the establishment of the 4-foot channel in the mid-1800s, the Upper Mississippi River (UMR) has been a vital lifeline of commerce for the Midwest. Then, in 1932, to broaden the scope of federal interests in navigation, Congress passed the Fletcher Act, to include as ‘commerce’ the use of waterways by seasonable passenger craft, yachts, houseboats, fishing boats and other recreational craft.
Over the decades, the channel was made deeper as the number of lock & dam structures increased.
To facilitate these expanded river uses and to preserve environmental quality, the St. Paul District has the task of dredging, straightening and widening the river; of ensuring that residents in the Upper Mississippi River Basin have adequate flood protection; and of mitigating the environmental effects caused by these activities. Not an easy task then and an even more difficult task now for a multi-use river system.
Influence of Environmental laws NEPA
Later, laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), forced the Corps to become more environmentally conscious. They would no longer dredge the Upper Mississippi River and other waterways with little consideration of the environmental effects on wildlife habitat and fish populations. By 2000, the St. Paul District dredged far less than before, used the dredged material for constructive purposes and carried out an Environmental Management Program that restored habitat on the Upper Mississippi. Although the federal government largely paid for most major civil works projects, cost-sharing measures implemented in the 1980s and 2014, shifted 50% of that cost to barge operators through a tax of 4 cent per gallon on diesel fuel which has since increased to the current tax of 29 cents per gallon (P.L. 99-662 and P.L. 113-295).
Upper Mississippi River/Illinois Waterway Study
However some critics charged that the Corps still had a long way to go in accepting environmental responsibility and pointed to the controversial Upper Mississippi River/Illinois Waterway Navigation Study, (a 1990s feasibility study to identify and justify investment requirements of the UMR navigation study 2000-2015) which supposedly used skewed benefit-cost analyses to justify extensive navigational developments on the Mississippi, as proof.
Although, said Colton and Godfrey, there was some merit to the critics’ contentions, it was clear that the Corps of Engineers generally and the St. Paul District specifically had made great changes in the last quarter of the twentieth century. As John Anfinson, former district historian, related, there was now “a much more open mind in St. Paul District as an organization to doing better by the environment and [still] meeting the needs of people who want flood protection and navigation.”
Although Congress has never authorized the Corps to build a dam and reservoir solely for recreational purposes, the Corps obtained authority in the 1944 Flood Control Act to build recreation facilities. The 1965 Federal Water Project Recreation Act allowed the Corps to include recreation as a contributing factor to benefit-cost ratios, while also mandating that non-federal sponsors bear at least fifty percent of the construction costs. With these authorities, the Corps developed campgrounds, day-use areas, boat ramps and swimming beaches around the bodies of water it managed. The Corps estimated in 2003 that 360 million people annually visited the 2,500 recreation areas at the more than 450 projects that it operated, as well as the 1,800 other sites leased to state, local or private recreation
At the end of their 260 page tome, Colton and Godfrey conclude that like others, the St. Paul District reorganized itself and adopted new methods of operations, both internally and in its relations with other entities, in order to improve efficiency.
While the uncertainty and confusion surrounding the reorganization of the Corps took a human toll, it also produced bursts of creativity – as evidenced by several award-winning designs produced by the St. Paul District staff – and a stronger organization.
In the area of human resources, a noteworthy accomplishment of the district was the number of women who had attained senior staff positions at the end of the twentieth century.
Looking ahead, it appears likely that both the public concern for the environment and the search for efficiencies in government will continue to dominate Corps’ administration in the next few decades of the twenty first century.
The Corps will be involved with two key environmental concerns in the future: climate change resulting from global warming and pressures on land use from continuing population growth. Long-range projections of the national debt suggest there will be a continuing struggle over the federal budget. The St. Paul District will no doubt face challenges, but these are challenges that it has capably handled during the past twenty-five years.
Professionalism and dedication are bywords of both the military and civilian personnel of the St. Paul District. We congratulate them on this, their 150th Anniversary.