Crews Clean Up Mess on the Mighty Mississippi

Published Aug. 8, 2014

The Mississippi and its tributaries, like the Des Moines and Iowa Rivers, recently recovered from high water. During flooding events, large amounts of debris are flushed out of the river system and can be seen floating downstream from almost anywhere along the banks. When people talk about cleaning up after a Mississippi River flood, they usually talk of lots of mud, some piles of sand and a few stray logs here and there but employees from locks on the lower half of the District have a different idea of river clean up after a flood.

The lock and dam system, which was built to aid navigation on the Upper Mississippi River, wasn’t designed to control flooding. During high water the gates at each dam are opened wide to allow water and debris to move though the system as efficiently as possible. This concept works for allowing large trees and other items to move past the gates on the dam but doesn’t help to prevent a buildup behind the gates of the lock.

According to Jim McDaniel, Lockmaster, Lock and Dam 21 in Quincy, Ill., all the locks and dams on the river deal with debris but Lock 20, 21 and 22 below Keokuk, Iowa, get the worst build-up of all the facilities in the District. A primary reason for this is the Des Moines River drains into the Mississippi just below Lock and Dam 19 and flushes everything from its drainage basin into the larger river system.

Lockmasters at each location are in charge of dealing with the debris. “We take it one step at a time,” says McDaniel.

The employees at the lock do much of the work by hand using chainsaws to cut up the logs that get stuck on the walls and pike poles to maneuver floating debris to areas where it can simply float downstream.

“We realize that we are just sending it down to the next lock where they will likely have to go through the same process to remove it, says McDaniel. “But that’s about all we can do with such a large quantity of natural materials.”

The Mississippi River Project Maintenance Section also gets involved in the clean up process. Much of the larger trees cannot be removed by hand and get caught in the space above the miter gates. This prevents the locks from opening. The maintenance crew moves in with small towboats and cranes to manually lift these trees up and over the gates and the walls of the locks. This process can take days, even weeks, but the crew must remove every last piece or navigation on the Mississippi River remains halted.

Not all the debris is natural material; anything and everything floats downriver in a flood.

“We make a reasonable effort to remove the garbage if it’s safe for us to do so,” said McDaniel.

Employees must be very careful while removing items from the mess because they never know what they might find. Recently the employees from Lock and Dam 21 found a backpack fi lled with items used in a mobile meth lab. The backpack was immediately turned over to the county sheriff’s offi ce for further investigation and the staff was advised of how to properly clean up after handling the potentially hazardous waste.

Employees like McDaniel say they are used to this type of clean up process because it happens almost every spring when the river runs high.

“The worst part is the dead fish,” he said. “We just do our best to clean it up and get ready for whatever the river brings to us next.”