Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway Association Holds 71st Annual Meeting

Familiar faces abounded at the 71st annual meeting of the Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway Association (WTWA), held May 17–19 at the Grand Hotel Marriott in Point Clear, Ala.

The 2021 meeting came just 10 months after last year’s gathering, which was not only delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic but also held, in part, virtually, with many attendees and presenters tuning in remotely.

Not so this year.

With COVID restrictions eased and vaccines readily available, the WTWA meeting was back to normal, with 150 waterway stakeholders meeting together, first for a golf tournament and Monday night social hour, then for two days focused on waterway management and business development.

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Col. Sebastian Joly, commander of the Mobile Engineer District, gave the first report of the conference, recalling many of the challenges and accomplishments the district has seen in his three years at the helm. He first reflected on the impacts across the district from Hurricane Michael in 2018. Joly recalled how, with Hurricane Michael-related rebuild projects still underway last summer, district personnel, along with members of Coast Guard Sector Mobile and the maritime industry, came together to prepare for what would become the busiest hurricane season on record in 2020.

“We weathered those storms, I guess pun intended, exceptionally well,” he said. “It’s a testament to the relationships and the lines of communication we have in this community right here. It’s just a testament to the professionalism in this group.”

Tonnage Trends

Wynne Fuller, chief of the Mobile Engineer District’s operations division, then overviewed recent tonnage, lockage and funding trends on the Black Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway (BWT). Ton-miles and tonnage were both up in 2019, the most recent year for which the Corps has data. In terms of commodities, coal is still king on the BWT, accounting for 33 percent of the 17.3 million short tons moved on the waterway in 2019, thanks to Alabama’s enormous supply of metallurgical coal. Just behind coal were manufactured goods, followed by crude materials, petroleum and chemical products.

The Corps maintains 24-hour service on all the BWT’s locks. At Coffeeville, Demopolis, Selden and Oliver locks, that’s due to usage levels surpassing the 1,000 commercial lockages mark. And while the uppermost two locks, Holt and Bankhead, were at 908 and 678 commercial lockages, respectively, the Corps maintains Level I service there because of hydroelectric power generation at their spillway gates.

“It’s going to be real interesting to see what the implications of the COVID pandemic are on tonnages,” Fuller said. “I’m confident we’re going to move on through this and we’ll continue to see an uptick in business.”

Fuller went on to praise his Corps team for rallying together during the height of the pandemic, maintaining a high level of service and professionalism while working at home, in the office and in the field.

Fuller also pointed to an item contained in the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2020 that authorized a study to deepen the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, including the lower BWT, from 9 feet to 12 feet.

“Now we’re waiting for funding for the actual study,” Fuller said. “It looks like ’23 would be the first opportunity for funding, and we’re certainly pushing for that.”

With the reinauguration of earmarks in Congress, there’s a chance that study could be funded sooner, Fuller said.

Lock Work Planned

Anthony Perkins, operations project manager for the BWT and Alabama-Coosa River projects, followed Fuller, offering a look at recent and upcoming lock maintenance work throughout the system. Perkins said four new filling valves have already been fabricated for Holt Lock, and R&D Maintenance, the maintenance contractor for the project, is in the process of replacing the first valve. That work does not require closing the lock to navigation, Perkins said.

Perkins said the filling valves, particularly on high-lift locks like Holt, take a lot of abuse, but the new valves, built at G&G Steel in Russellville, Ala., are heavier-duty and are designed to better withstand the rigors of frequent use.

Perkins then recounted the recent emergency closure at Coffeeville Lock, due to cracks in an old reaction roller assembly. He said his team partnered with the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway office, which had a spare reaction roller available.

Perkins also looked at dredging on the system last year in response to historic flooding and shoaling. In just seven months—between May 2020 and December 2020—dredging contractors removed 891,000 cubic yards of material. Some 310,000 cubic yards of material was removed from Sunflower Bar near Mile 78, which is an annual trouble spot, Perkins said. The Corps is planning an “advanced maintenance cut” at Sunflower sometime this year, which should reduce the need for annual dredging there.

Perkins said Oliver and Bankhead locks have 30-day closures scheduled for this summer, commencing on June 24. 

“We don’t have any major maintenance, or what I’d call critical maintenance items, at either one that we’re aware of,” Perkins said. “Of course, we’ll do a full inspection when we dewater the locks. For right now, it looks like the routine work.”

Closure at Coffeeville and Demopolis locks are schedule for 2024.

Other future maintenance work, pending funding availability, along the system includes the replacement of hydraulic lines at Demopolis Lock’s lower gallery, new lower miter gates for Coffeeville and Demopolis, the acquisition of spare parts for lock and spillway operating systems, the replacement of electrical motor control centers at Selden Lock, and the replacement of power and control wiring at Demopolis.

Justin Murphree, operations project manager for the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, looked back on 2020, which was a busy year for lock maintenance and dredging on that system. He also looked forward to new equipment coming online for the project, including a new work barge and floating plant, both expected in 2022. Next year, Murphree and his colleagues will also, hopefully, move into a newly constructed Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Management Center office.

Coast Guard

Coast Guard Sector Mobile commander Capt. LaDonn Allen also addressed the group. Sector Mobile, Allen said, was the first sector to reach the 50 percent mark for its fleet of responsibility receiving certificates of inspection (COIs) under Subchapter M. The next compliance deadline is July 19, when 75 percent of the fleet should have COIs. Allen said the sector currently stands at about 74 percent, with about 41 more vessels needed to apply for and receive COIs before the deadline.

Allen said common deficiencies seen on towing vessels include a lack of means to secure ventilation to the engineroom, issues with the storage of flammable and combustible products, safety guards missing on rotating machinery, oil in bilge water and excessive shaft seal leaks.

Gov. Ivey

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey addressed WTWA meeting attendees over lunch May 18, touting waterway infrastructure funding initiatives that have taken place during her time as governor. In particular, the Rebuild Alabama Act of 2019 dedicated funding for the deepening and widening of Mobile Harbor.

Ivey went on to look at the state’s economic and employment statistics, which are firmly on the rebound after the pandemic.

“Folks, this incredible turnaround is not the result of just luck,” she said. “It’s happening because, through collaborative efforts, Alabama has built a rock-solid economic foundation, so that no pandemic and no natural disaster can tear us down.”

Conference attendees also heard from Ken Boswell, director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA), who discussed grant programs that could be tapped for port and waterway development funds, and John Driscoll, director and CEO of the Alabama State Port Authority.

The Port of Mobile, Driscoll said, is home to the nation’s fastest-growing container terminal in terms of percentage, with eyes on continued growth. A roll-on/roll-off terminal will be completed within two weeks, Driscoll said, and MTC Logistics opened its new refrigerated cargo center just last month. Driscoll also said the port is working in partnership with leaders in Montgomery, Ala., and auto manufacturers to consider building an inland intermodal container transfer facility near the state’s capital city.

Waterway stakeholders also heard from business leaders representing key commodities moved on the Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway, including the wood pellet, coal and steel industries. The last day of the conference featured a hurricane season forecast by Jeff Medlin of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a presentation by Aimee Andres, executive director of Inland Rivers, Ports & Terminals (IRPT).

The meeting closed with reports from other waterway executives, including Jim Stark, president of the Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association; Mitch Mays, administrator of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority and president of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Council; Phil Clayton, representing stakeholder of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin; and Cline Jones, executive director of the Tennessee River Valley Association.

Reflecting on the past year, WTWA President Larry Merrihew recognized the more than 11,000 Alabamians and hundreds of thousands of Americans who lost their lives because of the pandemic. He also acknowledged that the pandemic forced people innovate in how they do business.

Regardless of restrictions and worries, though, cargoes continued to move on the Warrior-Tombigbee, thanks to the commitment and professionalism of mariners. And from how waterway stakeholders came together to make the 2020 WTWA conference happen to operations throughout the pandemic, Merrihew said it was all a testament to those stakeholders’ commitment to the waterway.

“What did come through loud and clear was what you do for the association, how you support it and how you won’t let any kind of problems that arise deter us from our mission,” he said. “And that is to work closely to keep our river system safe, efficient and a real tool for our safe. I want to thank you for your efforts and how you’ve stayed with us and supported us.”