Waterways Symposium: Corps Celebrates Lock Repairs, Looks Ahead

Officials from the Corps of Engineers celebrated the Corps’ unprecedented achievement in completing the simultaneous upgrades and repairs to six locks and dams in the Illinois Waterway system in presentations at the recently concluded Waterways Symposium. They also detailed the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on the Corps’ spending programs and looked ahead to what upcoming funding bills might mean for its plans.

The symposium, co-sponsored by Waterways Council Inc. (WCI) and The Waterways Journal, packed more than a day’s worth of presentations into a single morning in its first all-remote event.

Delegating, Speeding Up Projects

Chief of Engineers Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon stressed in a prerecorded presentation that, “The Corps does very little on its own.” Up until recently, he Corps  did an annual $20-$22 billion worth of business each year in its work for the Army, Air Force, Veterans Administration and other agency partners. Beginning in 2017, as Congress responded to hurricanes, flooding and other natural disasters, its annual budget has increased to $68 billion. .

Spellmon noted that the Corps has decentralized much of its project authority back to Corps districts, expanding 25 out of 31 total delegations of authority requested by a team that studied how to speed up projects. It’s all part of an ongoing push to “move dirt,” in the words of Assistant Secretary of the Army R.D. James, and “revolutionize project delivery,” as Spellmon said. That’s one of his four priorities; the others are modernizing Corps cybersecurity, improving partnership and supporting national readiness to response to weather events and similar crises.

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As an example of progress on speeding up projects, Spellmon pointed to the 42 Chief’s Reports approved since WRDA 2018, recommending $14.6 billion in waterways solutions. If all those reports are funded and completed, it would bring the amount of authorized  but unconstructed projects to between $112 and $115 billion. 

Spellmon praised the lock rehab and repair projects on the Illinois Waterways as an example of public-private cooperation. Spellmon discussed the effectiveness of “new authorities to allow better partnerships to promote and maintain a positive climate.”

Lessons Learned

More details on the challenges and lessons learned from the Illinois Waterway lock projects were provided by Tom Heinold, chief of operations for the Rock Island Engineer District. Heinold noted that the renovations were approved in 2005, but planning didn’t begin until 2017, after funding became available.

Since none of the locks in the waterway system have twin chambers, closing one lock effectively means closing the entire system to through traffic. The solution, worked out in close consultation with the navigation industry, was consolidating the closures. Work would be conducted concurrently on six locks at once, with four being dewatered. The effort commandeered much of the equipment and resources of the Rock Island District and led to some borrowing of equipment from other districts, including a crane and its crew from the St. Paul District. “We tapped out marine construction capacities for this season,” Heinold said.

During the question and answer period, Heinold was asked about lessons learned from operating the projects concurrently. “We usually don’t like funding spikes; we prefer to do projects consecutively. Other sectors had to take a hit” as the Illinois Waterway project monopolized equipment and resources. But the alternative was unacceptable, he said.

Unique Challenges

Challenges ranged from high temperatures to high winds to Asian carp to design innovations that had to be revisited. Each separate lock and dam project had its own unique challenges.

On LaGrange, Heinold noted that even though there were some unavoidable delays and the contractor lost 42 days of mobilization due to flooding and had to modify the contract, LaGrange still reopened within the specified contractual date range. LaGrange features an innovative design for hydraulic rotary actuators for the miter gates, which are completely enclosed, thus reducing wear and damage to them due to flooding. “We expect this design will be copied at other locks and dams,” he said.

An innovation tried on the Peoria Lock and Dam was less successful. This lock crew installed greaseless pintle balls for the bottom hinge of the miter gate. But it was found that “greased is the way to go in that environment,” a lesson that will be applied to future lock gate renovations. “We had to remanufacture old-style greased pintle balls,” Heinold said.

Another lesson had to be learned at Starved Rock Lock and Dam, where the chamber was so full of invasive Asian carp that they clogged dewatering pumps. The chamber had to be rewatered and cleared by commercial fishers before being dewatered again. Heinold said the Corps will have teams of commercial fishers standing by in similar situations in the future.

During work on Marseilles Lock and Dam, liquid concrete was in danger of overheating during high temperatures, forcing the Corps to add ice to the concrete mix.

This summer’s severe storms in late August also caused some nervousness in the project teams, Heinold said. “We were afraid we might have to extend contracts because of the derecho winds.”  Another delay was caused when a Texas facility supplying heavy components for the Peoria Lock and Dam experienced an outbreak of COVID-19.

Funding for Brandon Road Lock and Dam finally arrived in April of this year, too late for it to be included in this year’s project schedule. Heinold said further funding is needed in 2021 to ensure that the Brandon Road work can be completed.

There will be additional closures in 2023 for further work, including the installation of miter gates at Dresden Island Lock and Dam, electrical rehab at Marseilles Lock and Dam and upper bulkhead recess installation and upper miter gate installation at Brandon Road Lock and Dam. The three-year delay was designed to allow the navigation industry to recover from the 2020 closures.

Capital Investment Strategy

Tom Smith, chief of operations and regulatory affairs, spoke about the Corps’ Capital Investment Strategy (CIS), a 20-year look ahead  that was originally published in 2016. He said the assumptions behind the CIS document had to be “overlaid” with estimates of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The COVID-19 era has been a challenging time for all of us, as the Corps has had to assess all its civil works operations,” he said. The Corps had been about 12 percent behind on deferred maintenance before COVID-19. The virus prompted the question of which projects could be operated remotely. “The pandemic wasn’t the only challenge,” Smith said. He mentioned ongoing recovery from the unprecedented floods of 2019, a sill failure at Bonneville Lock and Dam on the Columbia River and the effects of high water on the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River System.

The Corps worked closely with members of the Inland Waterways Users Board to sort projects into “A, B, C and D” priority categories, but “there’s not a high degree of prioritization within bands,” he said. The plan is a non-binding guide for appropriators and budget-writers. The CIS has been delivered to the Office of Management and Budget for review and will be revised to address questions within the next several weeks by James’ team, according to Jeff Webb, a team contact specialist with the Corps.

Dredging Challenges

Ed Belk, director of programs for the Mississippi Valley Division, reviewed current dredging programs. The 2019–2020 period included the wettest months in the history of record-keeping, and the deluge stressed lock and dam structures for record amounts of time, he said. In fiscal year 2019, the Corps moved 277.1 million cubic yards of material, with the Mississippi Valley Division moving 43 percent of that total, while the South Atlantic Division moved 25.1 percent and the Southwestern Division 8.9 percent. Out of a FY2019 dredging investment budget of $2.3 billion, the MVD spent $368 million. Belk praised the Corps’ “tremendous partnership with the dredging industry,” noting that it lets between 20 and 30 dredging contracts each year. Most of the material is moved from deep-draft channels.

The Corps tried to build dredging budgets two years in advance, Belk said, but “Mother Nature gets a vote!” Congress has been generous to the Corps in recent years he said, and “the WCI has played a decisive role” in this. Flexibility in funding helps the Corps allocate resources more efficiently, he said.

Dredged material placement is becoming a challenge in some areas, especially in the Upper Mississippi, where traditional placement areas are full. The Corps is negotiating with local stakeholders on solutions.

In the wake of 2019’s floods, urgent levee repairs took some funds from shallow-draft dredging. Belk called shallow-draft ports the “on-off ramps” for the “liquid superhighway” that is the inland waterways system. In the Victoria Bend area of the Lower Mississippi River (Mile 594 to 596, near Rosedale, Miss.), which the Corps has been studying for years, Belk said the Corps is looking at a “permanent engineering solution” to reduce the necessity of repeated dredging.

Belk gave a shout-out to Sean Duffy and the Big River Coalition for their effective advocacy to Congress, which resulted in funds being provided for the deepening of the channel at the mouth of the river that began September 11. Most of the material dredged from Southwest Pass goes to beneficial use, i.e., building up Louisiana’s coastline. “This has resulted in significant land-building,” Belk said. It’s also important to use dredged material as closely as possible to its source to reduce moving costs.

With dredging also going on in Mobile and the Calcasieu River, “there’s a lot going on in the dredging world,” Belk said. Both the private and public dredging fleets are aging, although there has been significant investment in both fleets in recent years. Dredging costs have averaged $4.5 billion annually over the past 20 years, although Congress supplements the annual budget by adding appropriations to the Corps’ Work Plan.