Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds visits Harpers Ferry to discuss the Mississippi River
by Susan Cantine-Maxson
Wednesday morning, May 4, Iowa Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds met with approximately 40 northeast Iowa constituents and other interested parties at the Allamakee County Conservation boat landing in Harpers Ferry to address the importance of the Mississippi River to Iowa’s economy.
Ardie Kuhse, Allamakee County Economic Development and Tourism Director, welcomed the group and the Lieutenant Governor to the area and explained that the lieutenant governor would have some remarks followed by questions and responses from those present.
Mike Griffin, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources' (DNR) Mississippi River wildlife biologist, also welcomed Lt. Governor Reynolds to the area and explained the significance of the area, “In 1986, Congress designated the Upper Mississippi River System as both a nationally significant ecosystem and a nationally significant navigation system. It is the only inland river in the United States to have such a designation.”
Lt. Governor Reynolds was at Harpers Ferry to emphasize the importance of this resource not only to the area but to the United States. She stated, “The State recognizes the importance of the Mississippi as a vibrant system to move commodities in and out of the state. We work with Congressional delegations, commodity groups and private individuals to determine how best to utilize federal monies for the Mississippi River. We are here to learn in order to be an ally in improving the infrastructure. When funding is tight, we have to be able to look outside the box to determine what can be done with available funding.”
She called on Mike Steenhoek, Executive Director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, out of the Iowa Soybean Association, to explain the importance of the river in meeting supply and demand in agriculture. Steenhoek emphasized, “This river is important to farmers in several states. Farmers in the area get a higher market value when they produce because of the proximity to the Mississippi River as a transportation system which gets product to purchaser sooner. (An average of) 58% of soybeans and 67% of corn exports leave from the mouth of the Mississippi River. The expansion of the Panama Canal will make the inland water system even more important. I expect the draw area to the Mississippi River will expand from 70 miles to 150 miles. Farmers will recover the costs of extra transportation because they will receive more for their product.”
Steenhoek explained that it is not always more money which will help the infrastructure, but predictability of funds is important: “By providing money in a predictable fashion, costs could be brought down. If you can buy supplies for six years because you’re sure you’re going to have the funds you can get a better deal than if you can only buy for one year at a time.”
Lt. Governor Reynolds said it was the philosophy of the current state government to have a five-year projection. "We know stability will help economic growth. We know that agriculture is a key driver in state of Iowa. We work with private individuals as well as groups to grow opportunities. I think one of the next big opportunities will be a biochemical tax credit. “
Reynolds praised the work of Paul Trombino, Director of the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT), in looking at the ways commodities are moved in Iowa. The DOT’s study on freight optimization and its comprehensive look at how the state, companies and producers move commodities has as its goal the reduction of transportation costs.
Reynolds stated, “Strategically, it will look at how we can drive economic development in all areas of state. We will work with Congress, the private sector, and the state perspective in order to allocate funds."
Steenhoek expanded on the explanation, “Historically, usage studies were based on how many tires go over a piece of road and funds are allocated accordingly. What Trombino adds is the function of the freight that uses that road as well and the ripple effect of freight on that area’s economy. Transportation is a key economic factor and drives opportunity. In addition, we have a key partner in Chuck Gipp, Director of the Department of Natural Resources. They keep water quality and the economy moving forward.”
Bob Hemesath, President of the Iowa Corn Growers from Calmar, contributed, “It is critical to keep locks and dams going. From a global standpoint, South America is building a lot of infrastructure. From a competitive standpoint, we need to update our locks and dams because its 80 years old. (Lock & dam 9 was constructed in the 1930s). We need to maintain but we also need to upgrade. If one of those locks and dams would fail, it would be disastrous for the economy."
Kuhse and others in the audience promoted tourism and recreation as a large economic boon to the area as well. The Mississippi River is one of the largest tourism draws in the state. Recreational users on the Mississippi River spend $1.2 billion annually.
Jane Regan of Harpers Ferry, speaking on behalf of the Mississippi River Parkway Commission, explained, “Visitors' dollars to Allamakee County put us 28th out of 99 counties in the state. The Mississippi River is critical to the entire county. Allamakee County doesn’t have big convention centers or big sports stadiums, but we have the Mississippi River. Research shows that tourism adds $2,800 per person in Allamakee County. We get heads in beds longer than Des Moines because people stay longer here. In the next few years, Viking Cruise Line will begin cruises on the Mississippi River. It is vital to maintain the beauty of the river. The Upper Mississippi Driftless area is very special. Soon a new Driftless Area Educational and Interpretive Center will open. It will explain why we are the Driftless area, why the area should be preserved and why it has been, is and will be important to preserve the Driftless area. We hope you can come back for the opening of that Center.”
Lt. Governor Reynolds replied, “I would love to come. We recognize the important role tourism plays in our economy as well. Deb Durham of the Iowa Economic Development Authority is working on assisting area economic development agencies in utilizing social media, marketing, branding and identifying the great areas in our state on a national level.”
Jim Janett, Allamakee County Conservation Director, emphasized the importance of partnerships to get a job done. He stated, “The County Conservation Board worked with DNR, city government, state groups and others cooperatively to accomplish projects like the current boat landing area in Harpers Ferry. Before the improvements this boat landing was unusable over half the days of the year because it was underwater. Now with the improvements, it is used 100% of the time. It has been a big economic shot in the arm for the area to have it improved. It’s amazing what can be accomplished when we work together.”
Reynolds wholeheartedly agreed that cooperation among a variety of groups is necessary for a successful economic future.
Steenhoek added, “Transportation is important but we do also have to focus on water quality and how critical that is for tourism and recreation. We all live in the Mississippi River watershed and we appreciate the focus on maintaining high water quality.”
Lt. Governor Reynolds replied, “We need to control our destiny. We do not want the courts to control water quality in the state of Iowa. It’s not just about agriculture and not just about urban. It’s also about rural communities without water treatment. We have to put additional funding behind water quality. The last initiative passed the House but didn’t go to floor in the Senate for debate. It is healthy to have the debate. We have different views on issues but you have to have discussion on issues in order to have compromise. So, we will circle back and hit it again. (U.S.) Secretary (of Agriculture Tom) Vilsack was there when we launched the initiative in January. This is not a partisan issue. It affects us all. We need to continue to look at best practices and monitor which are the best projects. We can’t control when Mother Nature dumps a bucket of rain on the ground, but we have to do everything we can to control run-off. We have to explore ways to fund it so we can work with partners to highlight conservation practices that work."
Carter Newt of Newt Marine out of Dubuque brought the perspective of the river industry. He works on the industrial side of river transportation, operating tug boats up and down the river. He also has a degree in wildlife and fisheries and knows the importance of maintaining a viable ecosystem. In addition to his job, he is involved in maintaining habitat on the river.
He emphasized, “We need to take care of the future. The river is an amazing source of transportation and could handle so much more product. Bulk transportation is so environmentally friendly. A big line boat hauls 900 semi-loads of product with one captain, two crew members, and two engines. Below St. Louis, the load is triple that. We’re scratching the surface. We need to create improvement in the lock system and to plan for upgrades to handle more capacity, but we need to maintain and take care of the river as well.”
Steenhoek contributed, “A ton of freight goes 600 miles on a barge with one gallon of fuel. That same ton would go 450 miles on rail or 150 miles on a semi. Barges can move a lot of product in a very cost-effective, environmentally-friendly manner."
Army Corps of Engineers Upper Mississippi Region Navigation Manager Bryan Peterson added to Newt’s statement, “Between 12-15 million tons of cargo go past Harper Ferry each year. The lock and dam structure needs to be maintained but also it is vital that the channels need to be maintained. The channels need to be dredged to get rid of sand and we have to find places to put that sand. We work closely with DNR, but finding a spot for all that sand is critical to maintaining the navigation system. We have to appreciate that focus and understand the entire system and how the various components work together.”
Jim Rand, Chief of Locks & Dams for the St. Paul District, agreed that the need to maintain the locks dams and channels while being vigilant about water quality control is vital.
Terry Hainfield, DNR wildlife biologist, extended a warm invitation to the Lt. Governor to escape to northeast Iowa whenever the bustle of life in Des Moines got to be overwhelming. She heartily accepted.
Lt. Governor Reynolds concluded, “We need to continue to grow the economy and maintain the beauty of the area. It will take all of us working together and collaboration to make that happen."