Untapped Possibilities: Could navigation on the “Big Muddy” provide clean solutions for a more sustainable future?

Published June 2, 2023
The Missouri River can be seen flowing with trees on either side and a blue sky in the background.

The Missouri River, aka the “Big Muddy,” can be seen near Jefferson City, Missouri.

The Missouri River is shown in the foreground with construction boats and cranes in the middle, with a blue sky with clouds in the background.

Construction on the Missouri River can be seen near Kaw Point in Kansas City, Missouri.

A man in a white shirt presents off of a tv screen in front of a large conference table, where three individuals can be seen sitting and listening to the presentation.

Richard Grenville, vice president of multimodal logistics at PortKC, gives a presentation to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers staff at the PortKC office in Kansas City, Missouri, on May 22, 2023.

The words “green” and “clean” are likely not the first that come to mind when thinking of ground transportation in the U.S. Trucks on the interstate and railroads are probably what come to mind first, but the greenest and cleanest form of ground transportation is one that often gets overlooked: waterway navigation.  

As the oldest form of transportation, navigation on U.S. waterways is not a new concept. At face value, navigation of the nation’s waterways and environmental sustainability may not seem to be related. Except they are, as navigation has very little negative impact to our environment.

“The waterways are there, they have always been there, and we forget about them. We forget how important they are,” said Richard Grenville, vice president of multimodal logistics at the Port Authority of Kansas City, Missouri, or PortKC, a state agency that works to grow the economy of Kansas City, Missouri, through transportation logistics and revitalization.

As more work is being done to find solutions to climate change problems, could the use of our many navigable waterways to transport goods across the nation, and the world, provide solutions to a more sustainable future?

Navigation on the Missouri River

Navigation on the Missouri River has been an important method of transporting goods and commodities since the early 19th century. After the Corps of Discovery, the official name of Lewis and Clark’s historic expedition, managing navigation of the nation’s waterways became a tenant of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s mission. At the Kansas City District, managing navigation on the Lower Missouri River Basin has been a vital part of the district’s mission since it was founded in 1907.

“The Kansas City District [moved] from Sioux City, Iowa, to its current location [in Kansas City, Missouri], in 1907, primarily to establish navigation on the Missouri River,” said Col. Travis Rayfield, district commander and district engineer at the Kansas City District.

The Kansas City District works with local, state and national agencies and organizations, like PortKC and The American Waterways Operators, or AWO, the nation’s advocate for the tugboat, towboat and barge industry, to manage and operate the Lower Missouri River Basin’s navigation channel.

“Our role in the navigation industry is to have created a navigable waterway … that industry uses,” said Rayfield. “[USACE], to this day, works with the U.S. Coast Guard and other partners to maintain a safe and reliable navigation system.”

Environmental Benefits of Waterway Navigation

Every year, roughly 5.7 million tons of cargo passes through the Lower Missouri River Basin, which runs from Rulo, Nebraska, to St. Charles, Missouri. In the heart of the Lower Missouri River Basin lies Kansas City, Missouri, a major economic and agricultural hub of the U.S. The use of the Lower Missouri River Basin for transporting goods across the nation has many economic benefits. However, many might be surprised to know that inland waterway navigation provides environmental benefits as well.

“The navigation industry has the least impact on the environment of any other ground transportation,” said Lynn Muench, senior vice president of regional advocacy at AWO. “We move the most ton miles, we emit the least air emissions per ton mile, and we don’t impact infrastructure.”

Moving goods via inland waterways is the most fuel-efficient method. One barge moving one ton of cargo with one gallon of fuel travels about 570 miles. Whereas trains carrying one ton of cargo can travel about 418 miles and trucks travel about 75 miles for every one gallon of fuel.

“When you have a waterway that’s already built, a maritime highway, if you will, it’s much more efficient to move large goods up and down the waterway,” said Rayfield.

One barge on the river emits 15.1 grams of CO2 per ton mile compared to 21.6 grams and 140.7 grams for rail and truck, respectively. Furthermore, one dry barge is equivalent to between 65 and 70 tractor-trailers. This means not only are barges on the river traveling further and emitting less CO2 per ton mile, but they also reduce the number of trains and trucks on our roadways, further helping to reduce overall CO2 emissions.

“Each barge holds the equivalent of about 65 tractor-trailer loads,” said Grenville. “You put six to eight barges together and you’ve removed quite a bit of carbon from the environment.”

Waterway navigation’s benefits to the environment don’t stop at CO2 emissions. Navigation on our waterways produces less noise pollution than other forms of ground transportation, has very little negative impact to natural river habitats and is also the safest form of ground transportation, resulting in minimal accidents, cargo spills and deaths.

“We spill almost no oil at any time and there’s a lot of chemicals [being transported]. If you knew what was moving, you’d be much happier that they were on the river than on the roads,” said Muench. “We have almost an impeccable safety record in moving those kinds of chemicals.”

The Future of Navigation on the Missouri River

The Missouri River, the longest river in North America, was nicknamed the “Big Muddy” due to the large amounts of sediment that are naturally transported as the river flows. It might seem contradictory, then, to call navigation on the “Big Muddy” a “clean” solution for reducing negative impacts that ground transportation has on the environment. However, inland waterway navigation in the U.S. has many documented socioeconomic benefits, as well as seemingly endless potential.

“[Navigation on waterways] has many untapped capabilities,” said Grenville. “It is one of the few transportation modes that has capacity that it hasn’t used yet, unlike road and rail.”

Many companies, organizations and government agencies are looking at new technologies and innovative ways to improve navigation on the nation’s waterways. At AWO, sustainable solutions are in the works, both in the short term and in the long term.

“We [AWO] have a lot of guys looking to get as much biodiesel into their diesel fuels as possible,” said Muench. “We are looking at the things we can do now and where do we want to go. How do we get to zero emissions?”

Like AWO’s members, PortKC is also looking for solutions for more sustainable waterway navigation.

“We have a company that we aligned with that designed an inland container vessel that will hold almost 2,000 containers,” said Grenville. “That could definitely change the way freight moves, especially up and through the center of the U.S.”

These are just a couple of the new technologies and innovations that could prove navigation to be one of many sustainable solutions in protecting the environment, now and into the future. Continued partnership between USACE and other local, state and national organizations and agencies will be critical for making this vision become a reality.

“I think people just forget about [navigation,]” said Rayfield. “For the goods that we want to have in America and for the goods we want to provide to the world, it’s important to keep navigation in the discussion.”

The water of the Missouri River might be muddy but the future of navigation on the river, at least from a sustainability standpoint, is looking awfully bright.