While many boaters pass through locks numerous times each season, many don’t even think about how the locks work or more importantly what would it be like if they weren’t there. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently gave a tour and seminar that looked at these and other issues.
The tour took place at the Elizabeth Lock on the Monongahela River, 23.8 miles up-river from The Point in Pittsburgh. Although the lock went through a major rehabilitation only 8 years ago, it was determined based on lock usage and condition, that the scheduled repairs were necessary. The large chamber is currently going through another renovation to extend the life of this 107 year old structure by another 10 years.
With the chamber dewatered, visitors were allowed to walk down into the bottom of the lock and see first-hand the toll over 100 years of use has levied on this structure. The condition of the lock was rough to say the least. To secure the lock chamber walls, 24 massive struts were placed in the lock to hold the walls up during the work that is expected to last seven weeks. The lock utilizes 16 filling and emptying valves although only six can be used at a time to minimize turbulence in the chamber. At the time of this current rehabilitation, only eight were operational. Major delays to navigation would result if two or more valves were to break.
The real surprise is that all of this work is scheduled to be demolished in about 10 years. Originally the Elizabeth Lock and Dam was to be completely removed by 2004. Due to funding cutbacks the schedule is already 10 years behind and expected to be over 20 years behind schedule by time it is removed. This is what happened on just one project; there are many others that share a similar fate due to budgetary constraints.
While the history and condition of the locks were important segments of the tour, the real focus was on funding. Ten years ago the Army Corps of Engineers worked on a preventative maintenance schedule. Now, with the exception of a few critical projects, they are on a “fix as fails” system. While recreational boaters are already feeling the effects of budget cuts with lock closures on the upper Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, potential for unscheduled lock closures could have a much greater impact on something more important than boating – the economy.
Although often overlooked by the general public, the country’s waterways are a critical part of the transportation infrastructure. Consider the following:
- Over $180 billion in cargo was moved on inland and intercoastal waterways from 31 states.
- One gallon of fuel moves one ton of freight 576 miles by barge. Compare that to 413 miles by rail and 155 miles by truck.
- One 15 barge tow can handle the same cargo as 216 rail cars plus 6 locomotives OR 1,050 large semi tractor-trailers.
While you may not think a lock on Monongahela River is a critical in the grand scheme, keep in mind that the Elizabeth Lock had only 3 fewer lockages than the busiest lock on the Ohio River last year. Although the tonnage was far less because of the smaller size of the lock, the numbers still show how important this and all of the locks are.
While a lack of funding is the harsh reality they Army Corps of Engineers is dealing with, there is some good news. Just a few months ago President Obama signed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRDA) that gave the Army Corps more flexibility in how their funding is used. This bill also opened the door for public/private partnerships. This is already happening with the non-profit Allegheny River Development Corporation working with the Army Corps to “purchase” lock time on the Upper Allegheny River. Although the full scope of the bill is unknown, there are hopes that it will also help streamline funding for projects, a major problem in the past. However, the bill does not determine the amount of funding, which is still a critical part of the equation. Even the most streamlines process will not work if the funding is inadequate.
While the crumbling concrete and broken machinery at the Elizabeth Lock is a reality, it is also symbolic of the system as a whole. The boating public needs to let the government know that the waterways infrastructure needs to be maintained as the country moves forward. Without appropriate funding, not only will recreational boaters be impacted in a negative way, but also something much more important, our way of life.
To view more photos from the Elizabeth Lock tour, go to the BoatLocal.com Photo Page.