Locks and Dams

Queues Grow Quickly As Calcasieu Lock Work Begins

A year-and-a-half’s worth of reality has set in for operators on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway who move tows through Calcasieu Lock, located in Cameron Parish, La., just south of Lake Charles.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is overseeing major repair work at Calcasieu Lock, the busiest on the canal, which will entail removing and replacing the lock’s south chamber guidewall. During construction, which has already begun, the lock is closed to navigation Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The daytime closure is expected to last all the way until December 2019.

What’s more, the Corps’ construction contractor has installed a guidewall template, which, while not impeding navigation through the lock, has constricted the flow. The Corps is opening the lock to navigation during evening and overnight hours every night.

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Queues quickly piled up two weekends ago, growing to more than 100 tows at one point, with wait times to get through the lock lasting as much as four days. Water levels and tides on either side of the lock have been such that the Corps has been operating the lock in “open pass mode” during open hours, which has shaved some time off transits. But with traffic in the area, along with the guidewall template, movement through the lock has remained sluggish.

“As everyone is painfully aware, we continue to experience significant delays at Calcasieu Lock,” Jim Stark, president of the Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association (GICA) said in a July 8 report to association members.

Some 81 tows had cleared the queue over the course of that weekend, Stark reported.

“Unfortunately, during that same time period, 75 new arrivals were added to the lock queue for a net reduction of only six tows (from 104 to 98) in the past 53 hours,” Stark said.

Assist vessels arrived on the scene that weekend to guide vessels through the narrowed lock.

Early last week, GICA called on mariners to volunteer as watchstanders at the lock during locking hours to supplement lock operators’ efforts to clear the queue. By July 12, the queue had dropped to 71, thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Corps lock personnel, vessel crews and the volunteer watchstanders. The preceding night alone, some 26 vessels locked through.

David Leahey, relief captain aboard Golding Barge Line’s mv. Emily Golding and one of the volunteers helping during locking hours, said his main goal is to ensure vessels are attentive when their number is called.

“We’ll get with the boats on turn, making sure they’re up by the lock ready to go,” Leahey said. “We’re not doing anything special. It just goes smoother when you have two guys pounding on them to get ready to go.”

‘A Big Can-Opener’

Leahey said he can understand crews having trepidations for going by the template, likening it to “a big can-opener.” He said swapping between eastbound and westbound tows slows down operations. Another cause for delay is successive boats wanting to use the same assist vessel, a practice some companies are requiring.

“You have one assist boat that may have to do five people in a row,” he said, adding that he hopes “we can get companies to see the bigger picture.”

Even though the collaborative effort is helping clear the queue faster, deliveries of important cargoes, particularly petroleum products bound for refineries, are nonetheless delayed.

In a July 10 message to GICA members, Stark said the association has pushed for the Corps to identify a way to drop the queue at the lock down to 30 to 35 tows. That would translate to about a 24-hour delay, he said, instead of the 3- to 4-day delay many crews were experiencing.