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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.

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The area that has been hardest hit is the Upper Allegheny and Upper Monongahela rivers above Pittsburgh. Locks 6-9 on the Allegheny are now closed to recreational traffic because of too few commercial lockages, and the Opekiska and Hildebrand locks on the Upper Monongahela are also closed. The Morgantown Lock had 140 commercial locks, so it will remain open on weekends.

As the Pittsburgh district and others moved toward reductions in service, public meetings were held and many alternatives were put forward. Both the Allegheny River Development Group and Upper Monongahela River Association drafted alternative suggestions to the Corps. They proposed forming corporations that would pay trained but non-Corps personnel to operate the locks for one shift on approximately 49 days.

The Allegheny group has not heard from the Corps, but the Corps’ response to the Monongahela group was that these corporations would have to assume total liability for both the personnel and the equipment. Included in that was the stipulation that if any damage occurred at any time, it would be up to the group to repair it. Barry Pallay, vice president of the Upper Monongahela River Association, said they are disappointed in the Corps’ response because the conditions suggested “are not feasible or practical for U.S. or any other entity.”

The groups now plan to encourage their Congressional delegations to become involved. Included might be pushing for a broader definition of who “commercial” river users are. Bill Knapp, owner of Rosston Eddy Marina, who now finds himself in a nine-mile lake, feels he is certainly commercial, as do the bars and restaurants people formerly reached by locking through. Another definition of commercial would consider the numerous fishing tournaments that utilize several pools that bring in a large amount of revenue to a local area. It’s common for contestants to lock through multiple pools.

Getting the Congressional delegation involved seemed to be a factor in keeping the locks open on the Alabama River and Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river system. The three locks on the Alabama had only a combined total of two lockages, and the three on the ACF had none, so it was feared all the locks would close. But following a letter signed by the entire eight-person Alabama Congressional delegation, the decision was made to keep maintenance personnel at those locks for 10 hours a day, four days a week beginning in February. Hours will be Friday through Monday, but not on federal holidays. The maintenance people will be there to “exercise the equipment,” and if recreational boaters are there at those times, they can lock through. Hours will be irregular, so boaters need to call ahead. Any commercial users must schedule an appointment.

At the upper end of the Mississippi River in the Minneapolis area, Lock 1, Lower St. Anthony Falls and Upper St. Anthony Falls locks will have reduced service as of this navigation season and will be operational seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. These had lockages in the 800s and generally operate as a system, as there are no commercial terminals between them. Some tour boats did enter and leave just one lock.

The Kaskaskia River flows into the Mississippi at river mile 117, and the Kaskaskia Lock is located 0.8 miles off of the Mississippi about eight miles upstream from Chester, Ill. With 449 lockages, it reduced hours to 20 hours a day, seven days a week. However, lockages went up in 2012, partially due to a coal-fired plant that has only been on-line one year. There’s also a new port facility that will draw traffic.

The Nashville District is reducing service at three locks it maintains, two on the Tennessee River and one on the Cumberland. As of January, service at the Nickajack and Guntersville locks was reduced to 20 hours per day, with closures from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. On the Cumberland, the Barkley Navigation Lock will have the same hours of operation.

Reductions in this area are nothing new. Old Hickory Lock went to 16-hour operation about 30 years ago; Fort Loudon Lock reduced to 12-hour operation in 2004; Chickamauga Lock went to 20 hours in 2006 and Watts Bar Lock reduced to 20 hours in 2008.

On the Ouachita/Black River system, the Jonesville and Columbia locks in Louisiana will be closed from 2 to 5 p.m., and the Felsenthal and Thatcher locks in Arkansas will be closed from 1 to 5 p.m. Those closing times were suggested by the major users.            

According to the Mobile District, the information on the list showing the number of lockages on the Black Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway is incorrect, and all the locks there had over 1,000 lockages a year and will remain full service.

The basic problem, according to many people in both the private and public sector, is serious underfunding of the U.S. Inland Waterway Navigation System. But given the desire in Washington, D.C., for greater budget cuts, decreased service could become more of an issue for boaters in the future.

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