BY FRANK MCCORMACK
November 13, 2017
The Inland Waterways Users Board gathered in Vicksburg, Miss., November 3 for the 85th meeting in the history of the group. It was the fourth time the board had met in Vicksburg, which is home to the U.S. Vicksburg Engineer District, Mississippi Valley Engineer Division and Engineering Research and Development Center (ERDC).
The meeting began with a word from Maj. Gen. Rick Kaiser, division commander, on the global significance of the nation’s inland waterways. Kaiser pointed to the $4.1 trillion economy that operates directly on the waterways.
“We can’t feed the world like we’re called to do if we don’t have waterways that are open to navigation,” Kaiser said.
Kaiser acknowledged the ongoing issues at Lock and Dam 52 on the Ohio River as cautionary motivators for leaders in the maritime industry and the Corps to maintain a commitment to investing in the nation’s waterway infrastructure.
“This is why it’s so important as we move forward together as a body to make sure we get those critical projects funded and complete,” Kaiser said.
Indeed, recent closures at Lock and Dam 52 and 53 proved to be a major topic of discussion for the members of the Users Board.
“As Gen. Kaiser stated, we have some serious problems at Lock and Dam 52,” said Marty Hettel, chairman of the Users Board and vice president-government affairs for American Commercial Barge Line.
The failure at Lock and Dam 52 “shows the need to upgrade our inland waterway system and bring it into the 21st century,” Hettel said. The September 6 dam failure at 52 led to an 8-day river closure, Hettel said. Then with Lock and Dam 53 in operation, there were two 24-hour closures on the Ohio. There was then an additional 4-day closure at 52.
“So in total, we experienced 14 days of total river closure in the highest-trafficked area of the inland waterway system,” Hettel said. “From September 6 to October 31, there have been 1,117 tows moving 11,574 barges that have been delayed by 58.83 hours. This amounts to 2,378 lost boat days and 28,372 lost barge days. These lost barge days equate to taking approximately 2.4 million tons of capacity out of the system.”
Hettel said that while it’s possible to track vessel-related delays, it’s impossible to know exactly how much product has been diverted from the waterways to alternate modes of transportation as a result of the closures.
“Worse yet are the production facilities that had to be shut down due to the fact they couldn’t get needed products by any other means of transportation and sent workers home with no pay,” Hettel said. “Needless to say, we need Olmsted to become operational as soon as possible,” referring to the under-construction Olmsted Lock and Dam, which, when completed, will replace Locks and Dams 52 and 53.
Later in the meeting during a presentation by David Dale, programs director for the Corps’ Great Lakes and Ohio River Division, Hettel asked Dale directly when operators and shippers can expect Olmsted to hold pool.
“When you say you are hoping to get Olmsted online as soon as possible, will you give the board an estimate on when Olmsted could possibly hold pool and [we can] not worry about 52 and 53?”
“Right now the earliest we’d be able to do that is probably the end of January,” Dale said. “However, that’s not without a lot of risk.”
Dale said, especially given the near $3 billion price tag for Olmsted, the Corps wants to be cautious in bringing it online. If a major closure on the Ohio River were to occur, the Corps would weigh the benefits of rapidly bringing Olmsted into operation. But a “minor one- or two-day disruption in January” probably wouldn’t trigger operation of Olmsted, Dale said, due to the risk associated. Dale said it’s much more likely for Olmsted to come online in June 2018.
“It’s kind of a sliding scale based on the risk,” Dale said.
The current total cost estimate for Olmsted Lock and Dam stands at $2.74 billion, about $329 million under budget. Members of the Users Board highlighted the fact that the estimated cost of Olmsted has gone down thanks to timely, efficient funding from the federal government and the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. Members of the Users Board emphasized that drop in cost at Olmsted as evidence to support adequately funding other projects in process, namely at Kentucky Lock and Dam, Chickamauga Lock and Dam and the Lower Mon Lock and Dam.
The day prior to the Inland Waterways Users Board meeting, board members toured the Corps’ Engineering Research and Development Center, where much of the Corps hydrologic modeling takes place. Of ERDC’s seven labs nationwide, four are located in Vicksburg. Besides touring warehouses containing waterway models, the Users Board viewed a hydraulics flume where ERDC scientists are studying the possibility of injecting carbon dioxide into lock chambers near the Great Lakes in order to block Asian carp from continuing to move north.