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Battle to maintain inland waterways continues

Article cover photo
Colonel Robert Hilliard, secretary of the Mississippi River Commission for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, outlines work being done to keep inland waterways flowing. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Joseph L. Murphy, ISA senior communications manager

Our inland waterways are second-to-none in the world but they are only as good as they are maintained.

That was the key message Colonel Robert Hilliard, secretary of the Mississippi River Commission for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, shared with Soybean Transportation Coalition (STC) board members and their guests Wednesday, Feb. 27 in Orlando, Florida.

Hilliard has held the position of deputy commander for the Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division since Aug. 6, 2018. The Mississippi Valley Division is responsible for water resources engineering solutions in a 370,000-square-mile area, extending from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and encompassing portions of 12 states.

“What makes this nation special is our inland waterways,” Hilliard told the group. “We have more inland navigable waterways than all the other countries combined.”

For more than 100 years the Mississippi River navigable waterways have created competitive advantages for farmers moving their grain to international destinations. But Hilliard told the group that maintaining the waterways has become a difficult problem for the country.

“It is a math problem,” he said. “There are estimates that what is needed globally to maintain and update infrastructure is on the order of $60 trillion. It is a number that is hard to comprehend.”

Hilliard added that $2 trillion in commerce is generated from ports and waterways annually. Thirteen million jobs are tied to the 12,000 navigable waterways in the United States and about 500 million tons of cargo is moved using the waterways each year.

“It’s all about choices,” Hilliard said. “There are a lot of things that need to be funded and infrastructure is not always at the top.”

He told the group there is a cost to the lack of attention in maintaining that infrastructure. Sixty percent of the locks are beyond their 50-year life span, according to Army Corps of Engineers studies. For Warren Bachman, a farmer and Iowa Soybean Association District 8 director, that spells trouble.

“There is a tremendous amount of traffic that goes down the Mississippi River,” Bachman said. “I worry that a catastrophic event could cause serious problems.”

Every four years, America’s civil engineers provide a comprehensive assessment of the nation’s infrastructure. The most recent report gave the infrastructure a D+ grade.

“That’s not ‘D’ as in diploma,” Hilliard said.

 The report said deteriorating infrastructure is “impeding our ability to compete in the thriving global economy, and improvements are necessary to ensure our country is built for the future.”

The grade wasn’t necessarily a surprise to Hilliard. He told the group that 49 percent of the vessels on the Mississippi River experience some delay.

“The civil works budget averages about $4.5 billion a year for the Corps,” he said. "That is spread over 3,000 projects. The requirements are outstripping resources.”

Colonel Robert Hilliard
Colonel Robert Hilliard

Mike Steenhoek, STC executive director, said it is important for farmers to speak up and let policymakers know their priorities when it comes to management of the inland waterways and infrastructure.

“Farmers need to work closely and be engaged in this,” Steenhoek said. “We need to provide the Army Corps of Engineers our priorities and grassroots support. Of all the constituents that use the inland waterways, farmers have the most capital that they can lend when it comes to policymakers.”

Steenhoek said the capital comes from credibility and the number of constituents tied to the need for functioning inland waterways, a recipe that makes it hard for Congress to ignore.

“The temptation is to assume our policymakers and government agencies are populated by the Keystone Cops,” he said. “Our federal agencies, without question, have improvement opportunities that they need to embrace. But there are capable people who love this country and want to do the right thing. They want to improve our competitiveness and our economy. I have found the leadership of the Army Corps of Engineers very capable, and we have a good working relationship with them.”

Plans are in place for the dredging of the lower Mississippi to go from a depth of 45 feet to 50 feet, Hilliard said. The lower Mississippi River is currently maintained at a minimum 45-foot depth by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This allows Panama-size ships capable of holding 2.1 million bushels of soybeans to travel up the channel to be loaded.

A 50-foot minimum depth would allow Cape-size ships, which hold 400,000 to 500,000 more bushels of soybeans, to be viable options for shipping out of the Gulf of Mexico. These vessels previously had to travel around Cape Horn of South America — hence their name — to reach Asian markets. Now, they can more economically and quickly move through the enlarged Panama Canal to get to Asia and the Pacific Rim.

“Right now we don’t have the president’s budget to know what is in the 2020 budget for the deepening project,” Hilliard said. “It is a project that runs about $237 million over five years.”

Steenhoek said making the southern channel deeper to accommodate larger ships could cut transportation costs and make U.S. soybeans more valuable.

“In the end, it is our job to keep these waterways open so that you as farmers can get stuff up and down the river,” Hilliard said. “We have to have the waterways open for you. We are doing our best to do that.”

Contact Joe Murphy at

For media inquiries, please contact Katie Johnson, ISA Public Relations Manager at or Aaron Putze, ISA Communications Director at

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