Members of local farm bureaus, county governments and the legislature toured the LaGrange Lock and Dam and McGee Creek Drainage District on Thursday to see a key structure beginning to run up against some serious structural and bureaucratic issues.
The lock on the Illinois River a few miles north of Meredosia was opened in 1939 and is now in major need of repair.
Lockmaster Bill Cross said the hydraulic system is one of the biggest issues and given the age of the system no parts can be easily found for repairs. The facility also needs major concrete work, as decades of freezing and thawing have cracked and chipped away large areas of the lock.
It would cost more than $70 million to make the necessary repairs. Cross said the lock is entirely federally funded, so it will take an act of Congress to release the funds. Comparatively, a possible option to build a new lock and dam would cost about $260 million.
“They know it, it’s all documented what needs to be done,” he said. “The approval has already happened, it just needs the money. … The second command [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] was just here yesterday, said they didn’t know there was any money coming.”
The LaGrange Lock is a key component in the commodity transportation along the Illinois River — handling more than 25 million tons of cargo a year.
At a tour of the McGee Creek District pump house — just across the river from Meredosia — board chairman Len Wiese said the levee is in good shape compared to other levees along the river, but the Corps of Engineers currently rates it in “unsuitable” condition.
He said citations for debris on the side of the levee, overhanging trees and potholes on roads over the levees were the major citations.
He said the Corps has been pushing highly strict standards, which sometimes he felt were “petty” and an “unbelievable task.”
“I don’t think a lot of people realize what a district goes through to try to stay up to standards,” Wiese said.
Drainage districts have to comply with these standards, otherwise they might be left out of the Corps’ emergency response program, which provides aid in the case of severe flooding.
The pump house sends water in McGee Creek over the levee and into the Illinois River, keeping roads and farmland clear of standing water and providing protection against flooding. The drainage district is paid entirely by property tax assessments, so some needed improvements to equipment would have to be done on the backs of property owners.
Jim Koeller, a member of the Upper Mississippi, Illinois Missouri Rivers Association, said that there was a push to change how the protection provided by the drainage district would be measured for tax purposes. For example, the district protects major road and rail lines which are arguably more important to more people and businesses despite having a very small footprint in the district.
“As both the Illinois and Mississippi rivers stay high … the pumping has become critical to live and farm here and to keep the roads open. Not just for short duration. I don’t know how many months out of the year Illinois 104 wouldn’t be passable if we weren’t keeping water off of the road.”
“These districts really are providing a lot to the state,” he added. “I don’t think we really get credit for it either.”
Pike and Scott County Farm Bureau Executive Director Blake Roderick said the tour was organized to get a first-hand experience in the kind of challenges that these areas are facing, since farm bureaus commonly look to county and state officials for assistance.
Congressman Aaron Schock is expected to tour the lock and dam today with members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Cody Bozarth can be reached at 217-245-6121, ext. 1223, or on Twitter @JCnews_Cody.