Dams and the public interest: Should the water be dammed?

THE CAPACITY of Lock and Dam No. 26 is not a big enough issue to arouse public debate. Because of its crucial location, however, at Alton near the confluence of mighty inland waterways, the barge traffic that can pass there is of considerable importance to several groups: the Army Corps of Engineers, who want the navigation system enlarged to accommodate bigger and faster tows; the shippers, who like the cheap freight rates; competitor railroads, who resent the free railbeds (waterbeds?) available to river users; and conservationists, who want the rivers protected for wildlife and recreation. This current controversy in Congress and the federal courts is a reminder of the part that river projects necessarily play in the life of a congressman whose district is traversed by commercial waterways.

Rep. Paul Findley (R., Pittsfield) has the feeling sometimes that he represents one huge drainage district. Alton is in his district, and so is Pike County bordered on either side by the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. Findley is an exceptionally creative congressman who has used his experience on the agriculture and international relations committees of the House to master the linkages between the two subjects. He has, for example, become an authority on the significance of overseas markets to the agricultural producing and processing economy of central Illinois. In this equation good transportation is paramount. For Findley's office, the politics of river project funding require month after month of patient attention to details as the authorizations and appropriations inch their way through the congressional system. One public works project for the Sny Island Levee and Drainage District in Pike County has been in the mill here for 15 years, as long as Findley has been in the House.

Last year, after about $30 million already had been committed to preliminary preparations, a federal district judge in Washington stopped the Army engineers from proceeding with the Alton project until a specific authorization was granted by Congress. The engineers had assumed that they could take the first step in an expansion and channel deepening program all along the upper waterway north to St. Paul and Chicago, eventually costing upwards of $3 billion, under their blanket river maintenance authority. Then, last May, the House refused by a close vote to authorize the funds without additional hearings. Although Findley and most of the other downstream congressmen enthusiastically supported the project at Alton, Illinois metropolitan representatives saw the issue as an opportunity to score points with railroad labor unions that contribute heavily to the campaigns of urban Democrats.

The parting of water
There are other occasions when the waterway separates Findley's interests from those of his upstate colleagues. The lake diversion issue is a perennial example. Water is diverted from Lake Michigan into the Chicago River and from there on down the Illinois Waterway. This was done originally to help the city flush away its treated sewage, and was opposed by other cities on the Great Lakes because of fears that their water levels would drop precipitously. More recently, however, as the high water all along the lower Great Lakes damaged beaches and other lakefront property in Milwaukee and Detroit as well as along the southern end of Lake Michigan, there has been a growing clamor to increase the rate of diversion. The proposal pending in Congress would triple the rate of diversion at Chicago, from 3,200 feet per second to 10,000 feet.

Lock and Dam No. 26 and lake diversion are both cases in which a Chicago Democrat and a suburban Republican can interpret their interests in much the same way: the Democrat is helping out the railroad brotherhoods, and the Republican is impressing the Sierra Club. Some suburban communities draw their water supplies from Lake Michigan, so increased diversion would add to the amount that could be piped from the lake.

Downstream residents never appreciated having the rivers used as sewer lines. In Findley's district, moreover, farmers whose land is flooded every spring by the overflowing rivers are incensed by the thought of more lake water being turned loose in their direction. The newly united Great Lakes representatives have superior numbers, but Findley has an invaluable partner: the government of Canada. Border waters are regulated by a joint international commission. The Canadians are steadfast in their conviction that the slightest turning of the spigot at Chicago would cause a reduction of levels in the St. Lawrence Seaway and the upper lakes that would be harmful to their hydroelectric and shipping interests. Consequently, the cooperative relations between the two countries would surely require a presidential veto of any diversion increase voted in Congress. As long as the Canadians stand firm, the farmers in Scott County would appear to be safe.

At a hearing on the problem last year the Army engineers could not be sure that serious flooding could be prevented downstream if the flow from the lake were to be increased. Furthermore, according to the engineers, river levels could present dangers to navigation. Not only would Findley's farmers face the possibility of more flooded fields but the barges that carry their grain to Chicago would have a more hazardous trip.

November 1975/Illinois Issues/351

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