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Corps May Reconsider Alabama Lock Policy

By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
 
After a significant public outcry, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Mobile District has agreed to take a second look at a controversial lock policy that would preclude recreational boaters on rivers like the Alabama.

Because of budget restrictions, the Corps had announced that recreational boats would no longer be allowed to use the lock facilities on 27 waterways in the U.S., including the Alabama and Chattahoochee rivers.

The Corps rated the waterways on the amount of traffic, both commercial and recreational, and established a “level of service” according to the amount of traffic. For those waterways with low traffic, the level of service was rated at “6” on a scale of 1 to 6. A waterway with a top rating would maintain full service of 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. A “6” ranking would limit the use of the lock to commercial vessels by appointment. No recreational locking would be allowed.

When word spread that the Alabama River was ranked at the bottom and recreation locking would be threatened, a number of groups sprang into action, including the Coosa-Alabama River Improvement Association (CARIA), headed by Jerry Sailors.

A meeting of the Corps of Engineers and 55 stakeholders was arranged at Monroeville in September. The stakeholders from around the state expressed a concern that the lack of lock operations would impact the economic health of the state, especially the Black Belt, now and in the future as the state attempts to recruit new industry and promotes the river for recreational activities.

Gov. Robert Bentley also met with the concerned parties before sending a letter to Corps headquarters to ask that the changes be reconsidered, highlighting the negative impact it could have on Alabama, especially the economically depressed Black Belt region.

“The rivers in Alabama are extremely important for recreational use in some very unique places in Alabama,” Governor Bentley said. “It is also my priority to promote economic development and job creation. Our waterways play a major role in transporting goods through the state. Reducing the level of service on Alabama rivers will significantly harm economic development. I strongly urge the Corps to reverse its decision and not reduce the level of service for recreational and commercial boats along our rivers.”

Commissioner N. Gunter Guy Jr. of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) sent a letter to Col. Donald E. Jackson Jr., Commander of the Corps’ South Atlantic Division, that outlined ADCNR’s objections to the changes.

“The loss of public recreational access and impacts to fish and aquatic resources is detrimental to the citizens of Alabama who utilize these resources held in trust by the ADCNR,” Guy said. “Withholding the right of anglers and boaters to navigate public waterways is unprecedented, and we firmly believe the USACE should maintain a lock service schedule that is open to recreational users.”

Sailors said the feedback the Corps received at the public meeting and from Alabama officials has been effective in getting the Corps to reconsider.

“I think there may be some kind of effort for accommodation of recreational traffic,” Sailors said. “At this point, I just don’t know what that is.

“What is important is the Corps is not shutting down the locks. They are adjusting their operational hours. It’s all based on funding and how much they think they can afford to continue to operate the locks.”

Sailors said Alabama is not alone in the impact of the proposed locking change. There are 27 waterways with more than 200 locks that could be affected in some way.

“Of those 27, 16 of them are classified as low use,” Sailors said. “What that means is they move less than 1 billion ton-miles of commercial traffic per year.”

There is currently no commercial traffic on the Alabama. One hurdle is the maintenance of a 9-foot-deep shipping channel, which requires extensive dredging. The Alabama is caught in a Catch-22 situation.

“There have been no funds for dredging over the last two years,” Sailors said. “The reason there are no funds is there hasn’t been enough traffic to meet that minimum criteria.

“One of the reasons we haven’t had that kind of tonnage is the river below Claiborne dam is difficult to navigate. Even with dredging, there are parts that are difficult, especially during the dry months like September and October when there isn’t enough water flow to maintain the 9-foot depth.”

Sailors said that other river systems in the state, Warrior-Tombigbee, Tenn-Tom and Tennessee, meet the minimum criteria and shouldn’t be affected.

If the Corps does not change its current plans, recreational lockage would be prohibited and commercial vessels would have to make an appointment up to 72 hours prior to lockage.

“If that happens, that will cause a lot of heartburn for the people in the Camden and Monroeville areas,” Sailors said. “I think the Mobile District got a real dose of feedback about how the new policy wouldn’t make much sense when you’ve got people who use those locks.

“We’ve just got to keep up the pressure and let the Corps know that it’s not a good idea and it could affect our economic health, especially in the Black Belt area. Sen. Sessions sent a letter, endorsed by our members of Congress, to Washington telling the Corps it wouldn’t be a good idea. Several of the county commissions affected by this have written letters in opposition of the new policy.”

The letter from Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions was signed by members of the Alabama Congressional delegation – Jo Bonner, Martha Roby, Mike Rogers, Robert Aderholt, Mo Brooks, Spencer Bachus and Terri Sewell.

Sailors does think the public outcry has reached the people in the Mobile District, but he is not sure what kind of audience the issue will receive in Washington.

Lisa Parker, Deputy Public Affairs Officer with the Corps’ Mobile District, said the district submitted an altered plan for the Alabama River and is waiting for a response from Corps headquarters in Washington.

“We mentioned that recreational users were concerned about being locked out of the use of the river, and there was debate that recreational traffic should be allowed to lock through,” Parker said. “And, this is not just in the Mobile District. This is nationwide.

“We asked them to reconsider the recreational lockages on the ACT (Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa) and the ACF (Apalachee, Chattahoochee and Flint). Those are the only two systems in the Mobile District.”

Sailors thinks the fact the Mobile District is willing to modify the recommendation for recreational usage is a good sign.

“You won’t see a 24/7 operation like you have at Claiborne right now,” Sailors said. “The hint I got is they will try to accommodate some kind of schedule, maybe on weekends or certain hours during the week.

“I’m optimistic there is going to be some kind of accommodation for recreational traffic.”

 

PHOTOS: (By Billy Pope) Lock service on the Tennessee River in north Alabama won’t be affected by the proposed changes in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lock policy. However, recreational boaters, like this kayaker, will have no lock privileges on the Alabama River under the current proposal.

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