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Warrior-Tombigbee Board Focuses On Bright Future

Future possibilities for the Black Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway (BWT) were on full display during the September meeting of the Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway Association’s board of directors. The board gathered September 26 at the 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center in Spanish Fort, Ala.

From the pursuit of a 12-foot channel and economic development opportunities to planned and potential inland port projects, the agenda for the meeting highlighted the bright future that could be in store for the waterway.

Following the lead of other waterways in the South, Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway officials are taking steps to explore the feasibility of deepening the channel from 9 feet to 12 feet.

“We know on the Arkansas and Red rivers, they’re already moving ahead with that,” said Larry Merrihew, president of the Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway Association. “We think we need to be in the hopper also, because we have a lot of tonnage moving on our system, and it’s only going to get bigger. There’s going to be more and more activity happening, and we need to make sure the economies of scale are working for industry.”

Merrihew said the association is also gearing up for an economic benefit study to look at the entire length of the waterway—from Mobile, Ala., to Birmingham, Ala.—and also take into account connections to the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway (Tenn-Tom), the Tennessee River and even the Coosa-Alabama River.

Merrihew added that he was excited about the possibility of some upcoming economic development projects connected to the waterway. He also mentioned a forthcoming inland port development grant program from the State of Alabama, with $5 million set aside in the state’s recently-passed infrastructure bill.

The board meeting also featured presentations from both Mobile Engineer District Commander Col. Sebastien Joly and Alabama State Port Authority Executive Director Jimmy Lyons, who detailed the upcoming Mobile Harbor deepening project. Joly and Lyons officially signed the “Mobile Harbor Pre-Construction, Engineering and Design Agreement” October 2 in Mobile (WJ, October 7).

A pair of representatives from the Port of Birmingham were also there to discuss the Birmingham-Jefferson County Port Authority’s long-term plan for the uppermost port on the BWT. The port authority is only three years old, but momentum is building toward redeveloping and repurposing the space, which covers more than 180 acres and features a half-mile frontage on the Black Warrior River.

High Water, Shoaling

The meeting wasn’t just forward looking. Merrihew directed attention to spring and summer high water on the system and the shoaling that followed. While the BWT was spared the kind of historic shoaling that closed much of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway for weeks, the lower end of the BWT did have to deal with flood-related sedimentation. Merrihew praised the Corps of Engineers for always communicating well with waterway stakeholders and working expeditiously to reopen the waterway.

“We had a 14-day closure on our river system, and thanks to the efforts of the Corps, y’all stayed right on schedule with that,” Merrihew said, directing his comments to Joly, Operations Division Chief Wynne Fuller and BWT Operations Project Manager Anthony Perkins, who were all present. “We knew exactly what we were dealing with. The other thing that was so helpful was the fact they let us know well in advance of when they would have to have a 14-day closure.”

Dredging

Perkins reported that dredging numbers are up on the system, due to spring flooding. Emergency dredging resulted in around 130,000 cubic yards of material removed to establish a pilot channel below Coffeeville Lock, with much of that in the Sunflower area. Perkins said a 24-inch dredge started working September 6 to return the channel to its authorized width and depth.

Perkins overviewed upcoming lock maintenance and channel work on the Black Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway, beginning with an advance maintenance project near Sunflower, Ala., on the Tombigbee River. Sunflower is the site of a cutoff in the river, but due to the contour of the riverbed there, the site sees significant shoaling. The Corps spends on average $550,000 per year dredging there.

Perkins said the St. Louis Engineer District ran models of how clearing the “plug” at the cutoff would affect shoaling there.

“Dredging this to minus-20 will allow the river to move at a greater speed through there, so the material won’t settle out,” Perkins said. “We expect that project to reduce our dredging costs there.”

The Corps anticipates receiving about $2.5 million for dredging the Sunflower cutoff.

2020 Lock Closures

The Corps has scheduled closures in the summer months of 2020 at both Whitten Lock on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and Bankhead and Oliver locks on the BWT. Both are anticipated to last 30 days.

Corps officials asked waterway stakeholders to weigh in on whether they would like those closures to coincide, if possible. Currently, the Whitten closure is planned for September/October 2020, while the Bankhead and Oliver closures are planned for July. Merrihew said Warrior-Tombigbee stakeholders and officials from the Tenn-Tom would meet to discuss possible dates. Perkins said the window will most likely stay in the July to September window to coincide with low water and dry weather.

Waterway stakeholders should look for additional communication from the Corps and their respective associations.

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