Icy river makes barges, towboats work harder

Andy Kravetz GateHouse Media Illinois
U. S. Army Corps of Engineers Rock Island District towboat pilot Danny Johnson rams his way through the ice on the Illinois River Thursday to clear the way to the channel from the Corps' Peoria facility.

In a way, the Illinois River’s hard freeze this year is a sign that things are returning to normal for the waterway, says one of the men who spends his days on the water.

“This isn’t typical, but it is closer to normal than what we have seen,” said Russ Edwards, the operations manager for Trumbull River Services, a harbor fleeting service based in Peoria. “Everyone says ‘When I was a kid, it snowed this much.’ The river is supposed to freeze over. We used to have open water all the way up to Chicago, but now it freezes.

“That shows the river is cleaner than it used to be. The harder the freeze, the cleaner the water.”

But, Edwards adds, this is the “worst I have seen in 25 years.”

Thick slabs of ice, up to 2 feet thick, bob up and down. The section of the river through Downtown Peoria looks like a vast snowfield at times, broken up only by a thin line of broken ice, evidence that barge traffic still is getting through, at least for now.

Part of the problem is less traffic. Towboats — the boats that push the barges up and down the river — break through ice and create a narrow channel of water. As long as barges keep coming up and down the river, the channel stays open and free of ice. But a lull can lead to refreezing and more wear and tear on the barges.

“We are a prisoner of the temperature,” said Lt. Micah Bonner of the U.S. Coast Guard detachment in East Peoria. “Typically, we don’t get this type of ice on the river until February.”

With the two-week forecast calling for more snow and temperatures below freezing, it’s likely the situation isn’t going to change. Bonner said the river is officially “open,” but it’s up to the various towboat operators or barge lines to decide what to do. A daily phone conference with the Coast Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers and industry updates everyone on the river.

“When you are looking at it from an industry perspective, they are looking to see if they can make it up and down the river and whether it is cost effective. If not, then they shut themselves down,” Bonner said.

And that’s what Trumbull has done for the past few days.

“It just got to the point where it wasn’t safe,” Edwards said. “It’s dangerous. It’s beyond dangerous. They close down the Upper Mississippi for a reason. We don’t do that here because commerce to and from Chicago is too important, but the tows are working twice as hard.”

Edwards said winter is tough on the barges and towboats as metal gets brittle in the cold and can break more easily. Also, the weight of pushing the heavy ice can result in breached hulls, said Jeffrey Griffin, the general foreman for the Army Corps of Engineers in Peoria.

“It has definitely slowed down some, makes everything harder. Everything freezes up, our equipment doesn’t want to run, freezes up, definitely makes it harder,” Griffin said.

He stood by a large pile of ice cleared out of the slips where the Corps’ towboats were docked. And behind him, another towboat was revving its engine and moving back and forth to clear a path from the dock to the main channel of the river.

But down at the Peoria Lock and Dam, located just south of Interstate 474, it’s business as usual, says lock master Greg Patridge. Barges still are coming through the lock but are tending to be smaller in size. One thing being is done is “cycling” the locks more, or opening up the massive metal gates so the water can circulate and not freeze.

Edwards said the forecast calling for subfreezing temperatures might not contribute to thicker ice and thus, harder conditions to work. It’s the arctic blasts or polar vortexes that have sent temperatures well below zero that harden the ice.

“If it stays in the 20s and the 30s, the barge traffic can keep it broken up so we can move again,” he said.