Rising Water Closes Lower Ohio River Again

At press time, the Ohio River remains closed to navigation at Locks and Dam 52 due to rising river stages. The latest closure, effective from October 9 to possibly October 16, happened because river elevations exceeded the maximum locking stage of 20.7 feet. It closely followed an October 2 closure due to the failure of hydraulics that open and close the lower gate at Lock 53 near Brookport, Ill.

Discharges from Kentucky and Barkley lakes are being coordinated with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the Nashville Engineer District in order to reduce discharges as Ohio River flows decrease. As a result of this effort, Locks and Dam 52 upper gage was projected to fall within navigable limits either late October 15 or early October 16.

The two October closures followed two unscheduled September closures. In mid-September, an obstruction found in the main chamber at Locks and Dam 53 did not allow the gates to close properly. An early September failure of the wooden wickets at Locks and Dam 52 also highlighted critical, but aging, lock and dam infrastructure on the inland waterways system, Waterways Council, Inc. (WCI) noted in a message to its members.

The failures at L&D 52 and 53 are occurring during the low-water season on the Ohio River. The Corps of Engineers is attempting to fix the problems as vessels shipping key commodities wait in a growing queue that is currently 46 miles long. Other back-ups have occurred up and down the Ohio River, including at Smithland, Cannelton, Meldahl and Dashields locks.

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The Corps raises the dams located at the locks to maintain pools of stable water for navigation, municipal and industrial water supply, recreation, and other purposes. Power plants, manufacturing plants and municipalities that draw water from the Ohio River have been advised by the Corps that the pools of water they depend on may be lost within a week.

Corps engineers have been working tirelessly to undertake emergency measures, including building sections of the missing dams with rock dumped into the river (called a “bear trap”), installing a rock dike in front of the bear trap, controlling river velocity from upstream dams to allow divers to make repairs safely, and trying to replace parts of the failed hydraulic system.

In service since 1928, Locks and Dams 52 and 53 on the Ohio River are to be replaced by the Olmsted Lock and Dam which was authorized in 1988, but will not open until next year. Once Olmsted is finished, Locks and Dams 52 and 53 will be removed.

WCI has been using the lock failures to amplify its message of urgent infrastructure funding needs. In its message, WCI’s Debra Calhoun noted that “the failure of this critical infrastructure comes just months after President Trump visited the Ohio River on June 7, proclaiming that, ‘These critical corridors of commerce depend on a dilapidated system of locks and dams that are more than half a century old. And their condition, as you know better than anybody, is in bad shape. It continues to decay. 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…citizens know firsthand that the rivers, like the beautiful Ohio River, carry the life-blood of our heartland.’”