Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts
Blaine Napier stands at the top of the Melvin Price Locks and Dam and gazes south as the Kevin Michael (a 5,600-horsepower towboat owned by Steel City Marine Transport of Freedom, Pa.) pushes 11 barges of coal upriver. The vessel slows to pass through the 1,200-foot-long main lock chamber.
“It takes about an hour to lock through,” explains Napier, a lock-and-dam operator who has worked here since 2007. Last year, the facility saw 56 million–plus tons of commodities (coal, wheat, petroleum, chemicals, etc.) pass through while performing 6,600-plus such lockages. Napier observed some rather strange sights—everything from “guys in barrels and canoes to million-dollar yachts that will start heading back north” after spending the winter in the South. A month before we spoke, he witnessed a southbound tow slam into a bulkhead, scattering 15 barges across the river. He’s also endured 12-hour shifts in harsh winters and brutal summers. But he wouldn’t want it any other way.
“You get to see the sun rise and set every day,” says the 49-year-old U.S. military veteran, whose father was a towboat pilot and who began working on barges in 1980. “This is where I’ll end my career.”
Roughly 17 miles downstream, team leader Robert Davinroy operates inside a secure building just east of the Anheuser-Busch brewery. From the outside, the Applied River Engineering Center doesn’t look like much—a white warehouse in a row of nondescript buildings owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Inside, however, a team of engineers studies detailed “mini models” of the river. Clear streams of water flow through the rivers’ bends, small grains of Plasti-Grit (a sandblasting material) replicating the sediment on the Mississippi’s riverbed. A 3-D laser scanner (the same used for movies like Toy Story 3) is used to compare the model to topographical surveys of the actual river. The collection of replicas seems like a modelboat enthusiast’s dream. But its purpose is far more vital: These mini models provide the blueprints for real-life projects on the Mississippi.
“We try to design structures to let the river use its own energy to dig itself deep without having to use the dredge,” explains Davinroy, adding that such technology decreases the need for the Corps to use its 240-foot-long Dredge Potter to maintain the requisite 9-foot-deep navigation channel.
“Early on, like in the 1930s or so, some of the engineers didn’t have models, so they had to use their intuition,” says Davinroy. Now, using the model to eliminate much of the guesswork, engineers can translate what they learn into blueprints for contractors.
Among those studying the Mississippi’s ebb and flow—and the ecology therein—is John Chick, an aquatic ecologist and director of the Great Rivers Field Station, based at the new National Great Rivers Research and Education Center. Researchers there conduct ongoing tests to study the fish, aquatic vegetation, and water quality in the Mississippi, as part of the Long-Term Resource Monitoring Program. They are even studying the building itself, with various types of plants on the vegetated roof. (While standing on the roof, with a view of nearby Wood River Power Station’s thick plume of smoke, facilities manager Dane Beiser jokes, “This is actually a good picture of old-school thinking and new-school thinking.”)
This spot marks a significant change in the Mississippi. “From here down, there’s no more locks and dams, so it’s all open river. Ecologically, a lot of people are like, ‘That’s the good news.’ The bad news, though, is that 90 to
95 percent of the flood plain is permanently levied off from here all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico,” explains Chick. “You can really see a difference in the character of the fish communities, quality of water,
From a researcher’s perspective, this site—located near the confluences of the Mississippi and the Missouri and Illinois rivers—is something of an anomaly. “There’s really no other place, at least within this country, where you can find those types of rivers coming
Origin: Lake Itasca, Minn.
Length: 2,320 miles (fourth longest river in the world)
Watershed: 1.245 million square miles
Volume: Fifth largest in the world
Path: Flows through two states (Minnesota and Louisiana) and forms the border of eight others
Plume: NASA has photographs from space of the sediment plume—500 million tons are carried into the Gulf of Mexico each year.