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Locked Out?

As budgets for operating inland locks and dams evaporate, some boaters wonder what will become of their ability to pursue their favorite pastime.

The Lower St. Anthony Falls Lock in Minneapolis will have reduced service as of this navigation season.

The Lower St. Anthony Falls Lock in Minneapolis will have reduced service as of this navigation season.

Army Corps of Engineers

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There are folks who have boated for years and have never gone through a lock. Then, there are those who enter a lock virtually every time they motor out to a favorite anchorage, fishing spot or waterside restaurant — not to mention cruisers who lock through regularly to en route to their final destination.

While recreational boaters generally appreciate this service, they pretty much take it for granted. They probably understand that pleasure craft have the lowest locking priority — after military craft, commercial passenger craft, tows and fishermen — but none know what it actually costs to lock a boat through.

They’re not alone. It turns out even the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finds that figure difficult to determine. This, along with a reticence to implement plans to bolster funding to the Corps, has led to service reductions at 63 locks and dams throughout mid-America in the last few months.

So, how did we come to be in this position? Money to operate and maintain the 236 locks and 12,000 miles of navigation channels the Corps maintains comes from a couple of sources. The Inland Waterways Trust Fund was created in 1986 to generate funds for major capital expenditures and construction. It established a 50/50 match between the federal government and commercial users, who paid a 4-cents-per-gallon diesel fuel tax. That rate was increased in 20 cents per gallon in 1994, where it has stayed. The fund had a surplus until 2009 but has been declining since.

In 2010, legislation was proposed to increase the fuel tax by 6 to 9 cents per gallon, but no action was taken. In the last five years, lock user fees have been proposed twice to Congress. The first time, the idea was to replace the fuel tax; the second attempt was an increase to the tax. Due to strong opposition from the commercial users, the proposals died.

The part of the Corps’ budget that has affected service at locks is the Operations and Maintenance fund. Congressional appropriations have dropped for years, while maintenance and operation costs have been steadily rising. Locks are designed for a 50-year service life, and the average age of the locks the Corps maintains is 58 years.

“These locks are functioning well, but the service maintenance requirement is increasing,” said James E. Walker, project manager for the Corps. “[Reductions in service] won’t be popular, but these are the things we have to do nowadays.”

The Corps has been studying ways to manage their shrinking dollars for some time while still maintaining a high level of service and maintenance. Around 2004, they considered having a competition pitting them against private companies running the locks to see which one was more efficient. But they determined the cost of the process would be greater than the savings.

Eventually, a group was created to consider any and all ideas that would improve the situation. It was composed of representatives from different districts throughout the country, and its job was to find a way to prioritize where the limited funds should be spent. In the end, it came down to where to cut what.

A major goal was to establish a uniform and consistent approach to evaluating operations and levels of service (LOS) on the various river systems. Because the group was charged with maintaining the rivers and locks and dams for commercial users, it decided to categorize all the locks by tonnage and commercial lockages.

Using data collected in 2010, locks were sorted by number of commercial lockages into six categories to determine their LOS. These ranged from 24-hour service for locks with more than 1,000 commercial lockages a year to service by appointment for locks with limited commercial traffic and no consistent pattern of usage. Locks with less than 1,000 commercial lockages per year were further broken down into three groups: 501-1,000 lockages, 100-500 lockages and 0-100 lockages.

These were general guidelines for the individual districts, created with the understanding there could be local factors that could affect these recommendations. The idea was to use the guidelines “when they made sense,” said Kenn Shoemaker, who was a member of the group. There was also the provision that the LOS could be reviewed annually using a three-year average, because lock usage can change significantly due to high water, low water or unexpected maintenance problems.

While reductions and even lock closings to recreational traffic have occurred on 22 river systems, the fallout for many boaters like those doing the Great Loop and those interested in high-profile fishing tournaments has not yet become too great.

Janice Cromer, executive director of the American Great Loop Cruising Association (AGLCA) says she doesn’t feel there will be much impact. “Our Loopers are pretty flexible,” she said. “They’ll just adjust their looping schedule.”

The Deep Creek Lock on the Dismal Swamp Canal, for instance, will continue with its four daily lock openings. However, that could change if funding is reduced or even if there is a lack of rainwater in the canal.

Large scale fishing tournaments also are handling the changes. Bill Taylor, director of tournament operations for FLW Outdoors said the reductions “should not affect us in the long range.” He said the group understands the Corps of Engineers needs to run efficiently and has always had good relationships with the locks.

“My experience tells me they will work with the general public,” he said, adding that if problems to occur, FLW will simply make the necessary adjustments.

Smaller, more localized tournaments and local fishermen are feeling more of a pinch. There are some of these in HeartLand Boating territory.

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