Old-school towing family excels at modern-day habitat restoration

1 Newtmarine

Kehl Harbor fronts a mud pit created to hold dredged material from the Mississippi River, a holding pit with an excavating machine that feeds a drying area by way of a huge Morooka tracked dump truck. “It’s good black dirt and when it’s dry, it goes up for sale,” said Capt. Bill Ries, at the helm of Newt Marine Service’s 56-foot towing vessel Michael G.

From Newt Marine’s moorage on the Dubuque, Iowa, waterfront, Ries slipped the tug, faced up to barge No. 35 with the Morooka on its deck, into the Mississippi River. After clearing the Julien Dubuque Bridge, Ries turned the tow into a narrow channel linking the river to Kehl Harbor on the Illinois bank.

The deck hand, Ken Kline, using hand signals to communicate distance, guided Ries to the bank. Brandon Robinson climbed aboard the Morooka and walked it off the barge onto the shore and headed for the pit.

Newt Marine Service is a third-generation family business engaged in marine construction, pile driving, bridges work, dredging and the like. But, along with these typical inland marine projects, Newt Marine has developed a niche: restoring river habitats.

Capt. Bill Ries at the helm of Michael G. near the Julien Dubuque Bridge.

The company’s beginnings were modest. “In 1965 my father was 20 years old and had the only tugboat in town, the Coal Queen,” said Carter Newt. “But he had a lot of help from my grandfather, Eldon, who had spent his life as a line-boat captain.” Carter’s father, Gary Newt, had $500 in hand and the bank loaned him $10,000. “He got the rest from my grandfather. My dad and my grandfather started in together offering harbor services and fleeting for a long time.”

In 1976 the pair built the pushboat Tigre and started making short barge tows, later on dabbling in construction and small pile-driving projects. The company was also involved in fleeting operations.

“When I came on in 1977, the Tigre was being built at Scully Brothers (near Morgan City, La.),” said Steve Cavanaugh, the company’s fleet manager. “It was the first boat built by the company, and we still have the boat. It’s working up on the Missouri River with the Ella Marie and the Captain Newt.”

Then, about the time Carter Newt joined the company, Artco Fleeting Services came to town. “So we had an extremely large 100-ton gorilla to compete with,” said Carter. “I saw the writing on the wall, and I got into construction. I like construction better anyway.”

Ken Kline, a deck hand aboard the 56-foot Michael G., lets go a line. Newt Marine owns a fleet of 19 boats and more than 100 barges.

Next, Carter, with an interest in the environment and a biology degree from the University of Vermont, began to bid on habitat restoration projects, “and that is the bulk of the work we do today. And it’s because of the tugs that we are able to do the habitat work,” he said.

A notable current restoration project is at Harpers Slough Islands near Lansing, Iowa. Expected to take four years to complete, the objective is to build protection from erosion for the islands that still exist, and construct new islands to replace ones that have disappeared. 

The problem arose with the building of Lock and Dam No. 9 in 1937, creating Pool 9. “We have four tugs, 20 barges and a large amount of land equipment building islands in the Mississippi,” said Carter.

When islands erode and disappear, the increased wave action of the river’s backwaters uproots plants and causes sediment to remain suspended in the water, a condition that muddies the water, blocking sunlight and preventing the nourishment of plant life. The company is dredging material close to the islands and in the Mississippi River, and using the material to build new islands.

Newt Marine vessels transport a Morooka tracked dump truck from Dubuque to the company’s moorage at Ice Harbor.

Newt Marine restoration projects underway on the Missouri River include the Tadpole Island Side Channel Modification Project on the Overton Bottoms Missouri River Recovery Program land in Moniteau County, Mo. Another project is repairing the shallow-water habitat for federally endangered pallid sturgeon and other native fish and wildlife at Fawn Island in Harrison County, Iowa. That habitat was damaged by the Missouri River flood in 2011.

Carter explained that the Mississippi is a slower river than the Missouri. The restoration projects on the Mississippi are primarily focused on correcting the damage caused by lock and dam construction.

“The object on the Mississippi is to create bulk habitat for a variety of animals and birds,” said Carter. “Whereas, on the Missouri River, the focus is to restore habitat for specific species. On the Missouri River in particular, you have to maintain a navigable river and still retain the habitat they have. The Missouri is channelized so the river is deeper and faster and the process is to create a sandbar shallow-water habitat.”

Newt Marine has grown significantly since Coal Queen plied the Dubuque waterfront. Currently the company boasts a fleet of 19 boats and more than 100 barges, plus dredges and a good deal of earth-moving equipment, much of it rented out to other marine contractors. “We’ve bought a new 18-inch dredge, so we’ll step up the dredging,” said Carter. “That one dredge will quadruple our dredging capacity. And that’s all tied into the habitat projects.”

Michael G. transits the Dubuque Rail Bridge, a swing bridge across the Mississippi River connecting Dubuque with East Dubuque, Ill.

Cavanaugh explained that the company is also involved in construction projects spanning six states: Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Minnesota. For example, it has three boats in the Quad City area of Iowa and Illinois, pushing sand and gravel barges between Muscatine and Davenport. “We’ll go anywhere that someone will pay us to go,” he said.

Another example is the Thebes rocks. In December 2012, with the water level dropping on the Mississippi River due to a severe drought, rock formations near Thebes, Ill., posed a threat to navigation. The Army Corps of Engineers, aiming to maintain a 9-foot-deep navigable channel in the river, awarded Newt Marine the contract to remove the rocks upriver from Thebes. The contract to remove the rocks downstream was awarded to Kokosing Construction of Fredericktown, Ohio.

“By December it was an emergency,” said Cavanaugh. “By the grace of God, we were able to get out of here. Usually by December, we’re locked in (with ice) here.”

Newt Marine rented a gigantic jackhammer to weaken the rocks to reduce the amount of blasting. The crews, working 14 hours a day, seven days a week for two months, used excavators on barges to pull the chunked-up rocks out of the river and load them onto barges. One of those large rocks was barged to Dubuque and now supports an anchor that marks the front entrance to the Newt Marine office at 5 Jones St.

Capt. Jim Streif pilots Newt Marine’s 500-hp pushboat Nebraska City on the Mississippi River.

On a recent project, Capt. Jim Streif was in the pilothouse of the 40-foot Nebraska City, pushing spud barge No. 31 upriver to load the Morooka dump truck at Kehl Harbor. “The equipment is going to be moved to the location of the Tippy and Stone habitat enhancement project,” said Streif. “We’re digging a habitat for fish and building a levee around it.”

Streif joined Newt Marine in 1983. He worked as deck hand and equipment operator, then gained his pilot’s license in 1993. He is familiar with all aspects of the company’s operations and has worked on both the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

The degradation of the Tippy and Stone habitat, 13 miles downriver from Dubuque, began with the building of Lock and Dam No.12 in 1939. The dam caused sediment to fill in the backwater channels and lakes between Dubuque and Bellevue, Iowa. The project’s objective, among other restorative actions, is to dredge the channels and create protective berms with the dredged material to provide overwintering and year-round habitat for fish.

In 2010, the Army Corps of Engineers presented Newt Marine Services with an Environmental Merit Award for demonstrating excellence. The award is for the first habitat restoration project that Newt Marine participated in, addressing the plight of the piping plover.

Streif carefully handles the controls while landing a barge against a riverbank.

It was 2004 and the piping plover population was reduced to fewer than 200 mating pairs, landing it on the federal threatened species list. Channelization and dams on the Missouri River had destroyed most of the plover habitat. Two other species, the pallid sturgeon and interior least tern, were on the endangered species list. Was the plover next?

Newt Marine Services conducted the project on the Missouri River near Vermillion, S.D., below Lewis and Clark Lake. The job involved creating new sandbars and shallow water areas where the designated species could nest and feed. A remnant of sandbar at mile 777.7 was targeted for expansion.

According to the Corps, the project came in at a savings of more than $1 million and is held up as an unqualified success, serving as a model for similar projects in the future. The resulting 90 acres of new sandbar provided habitat for 100 percent of the least terns and 98 percent of the piping plovers that fledged in 2009.

“Shortly after we completed the project, the island we built now had over 20 plover nests on it,” said Carter. “So habitat restoration works. We’re pretty driven to continue habitat work. I like the habitat work. It requires diversity, it is interesting and needed, and is well-spent taxpayer money.”

By Professional Mariner Staff