Aging Locks Create Delays on U.S. Inland Waterways

Lock structures and wickets at Lock & Dam 52 (file image)

By The Maritime Executive 10-13-2017 08:37:12

The industry advocacy group Waterways Council warns of growing problems with infrastructure failures at aging lock and dam facilities on America's inland waterways. In the latest incident, the Ohio River's Lock 53 at Brockport, Illinois was forced to close due to a hydraulic system failure on its lower gate. Over 65 towboats pushing barges with grain and other commodities had to wait along the river in a line that stretched back over 40 miles. 

In addition, last month, the wooden wickets at Lock & Dam 52 failed, forcing the Corps of Engineers to undertake emergency repairs. When raised, the wickets create a dam that elevates the river level upstream. Without them, marine operators, power plants, manufacturers and other water users would face challenges for continued operations. Other failures and back-ups have occurred up and down the Ohio River and the Mississippi, including at the Melvin Price Lock near St. Louis, where the Corps found cracks in a gate during an inspection last month. 

Locks 52 and 53 date back to 1928, and they will be replaced next year by the Olmsted Lock and Dam, a key infrastructure project some 30 years in the making. The locks and dams are required during the low-water season to maintain navigable river depths and to provide for municipal and industrial water supplies. 

The failure of this critical infrastructure came just a few months after President Trump visited the Ohio River, where he proclaimed that “[the locks'] condition, as you know better than anybody, is in bad shape . . . Capital improvements of the system, which [are] so important, have been massively underfunded. And there's an $8.7 billion maintenance backlog that is only getting bigger and getting worse."

Trump also noted a similar outage on the river near Pittsburgh last December. "One lock built more than 50 years ago had to be shut down for five days due to hydraulic failure. And you know what that means? Five days means everything comes to a halt . . . We cannot accept these conditions any longer," he said. The administration has proposed a $1 trillion initiative to repair America’s infrastructure, including its waterways, but it will have to contend with its other legislative priorities and a narrow governing majority in the Senate before it can proceed.