WTWA Managers Outline 2022 Work Plans

The Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway Association, the trade association representing business, industry and navigation stakeholders along the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Black Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway project (BWT), held its 72nd annual meeting May 18–20 at the Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Ala., on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay.

The meeting got underway with reports from Mobile Engineer District project managers for the BWT and the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway (Tenn-Tom). The two waterways converge near Demopolis Lock and Dam in west-central Alabama. On both waterways, while no lock closures are planned for 2022, channel and lock maintenance work is in the queue for this year, with some extended closures planned for subsequent years.

Nelson Sanchez, operations division chief for the Mobile Engineer District, outlined appropriations on the horizon for the district, starting with the $63.9 million that the BWT is slated to receive from the president’s fiscal year 2023 budget.

“That includes the building [project management office] that we got funded for about $13 million, then also for Demopolis and Coffeeville miter gates,” Sanchez said.

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Besides those special projects, the BWT is set to receive about $24 million in normal operations and maintenance funding, which is close to its annual average, Sanchez said.

Tonnage Statistics

Looking at ton miles and overall tonnage, the BWT is holding its own with a five-year average of 2.8 billion ton miles and a five-year tonnage average of 17 million short tons.

“We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for tons,” Sanchez said. “Rumors are we might see that going up.”

While 2020 was the last year of data available, Sanchez said he expects tonnage statistics to have trended upward in 2021 and 2022.

Based on commercial and recreational lockages, all the locks on the BWT remain in the Level 1 service category, with the exception of the uppermost locks at Holt and Bankhead. However, since those locks feature spillway gates that require round-the-clock personnel, even Holt and Bankhead locks remain open for lockages 24 hours a day.

“I don’t see any changes there,” Sanchez said. “As a matter of fact, I think it’ll be higher in the future. … I’m pretty confident that during my time as chief of operations we’ll still be a high level of service.”

Sanchez did offer a brief glimpse at the current Atlantic Basin hurricane season outlook, which forecasts another busy year. Colorado State University’s 2022 outlook calls for 19 named storms, nine hurricanes and four major hurricanes. That’s above average across the board compared to the 30-year period between 1991 and 2020 and quite close to what was observed in the 2021 season.

Planned Waterway Work

Anthony Perkins, operations project manager for the BWT, spoke next, offering an overview of work coming up on the waterway. Sometime in June, Perkins said he expects Inland Dredging Company to get to work on $4 million in maintenance dredging on the system, with areas in particular need of attention noted at Sunflower Bar near Mile 78, Singleton Bar at Mile 86, St. Elmo near Mile 95.5 and Little McGrew Shoals at Mile 105. Perkins also said his office will oversee a $3.2 million dredging project this year to deepen to minus-20 feet Sunflower Bar, a major point of shoaling on the waterway that traditionally requires more than $500,000 in work each year. His office also has $8 million in the budget this year for dredging the Alabama River.

Perkins noted some ongoing and upcoming lock work throughout the system. At Holt Lock, near the upper end of the system, the Corps is continuing to replace the emptying and filling valves, tasks that do not require lock closures. Perkins’ team is also preparing to replace corroded hydraulic lines in the lower pipe gallery at Demopolis Lock. Perkins said that work is expected to get underway around June 8 and last four to six weeks. That will require a two-day closure, Perkins said, and will call for some coordination of red-flag barges going through the lock.

“We’re going to try to ensure we can get a daytime restriction and lock those red-flag barges at night so we can stay away from the 6 a.m. to 4:30 work time frame,” Perkins said. “If we can keep those barges on the night shifts and away from the work hours Monday through Saturday, it’ll help us move that project along.”

At the moment, funding for new miter gates at Coffeeville and Demopolis locks is in the president’s fiscal year 2023 budget. If that funding comes to fruition, there will be a two-year construction window, with installation at Demopolis anticipated for 2025 and at Coffeeville in 2026 or 2027.

Justin Murphree, operations project manager for the Tenn-Tom, then updated the crowd on what’s on the horizon for that waterway. The Tenn-Tom has a new floating plant and crane barge under construction at Thoma-Sea in Houma, La. The barge will be equipped with a Liebherr crawler crane, with the new equipment expected by this fall.

Murphree said his team also has available to them a new excavator with a 10-inch cutterhead attachment, which will allow the team to respond quickly to critical shoaling, like what happened at Aberdeen Lock in 2019.

“We’re ready now if we need this for emergency purposes,” Murphree said.

That excavator and cutterhead attachment will also be able to perform “spot strike removal.”

“If we’re more efficient with those strikes removed, it’ll be better for all of us,” he said.

This summer, the Tenn-Tom team will perform repairs at Stennis Lock & Dam, where a barge allision last year damaged the spillway apron and spillway gate No. 2. The allision caused the river to create a scour hole, which Murphree’s team addressed with rip rap. Workers will remove the rip rap and damaged concrete slabs and conduct repairs. Murphree said he was just thankful the allision impacted gate No. 2 rather than gate No. 3, which was recently replaced.

“I’d hate for it to hit a new gate,” Murphree said. “At least it hit an old one.”

Corps engineers are also looking at what can be done at the lower approach to Aberdeen Lock to avoid the kind of eye-popping shoaling that occurred in 2019. The Corps could modify an existing training dike at the structure, along with using the new excavator and cutterhead attachment at the site when needed.

The Tenn-Tom team hopes to move into its new waterway management center in January 2023, Murphree said. Beyond that, Murphree anticipates closures at Wilkins Lock and Thad Cochran Lock (formerly Amory Lock) in 2023 and a closure at Whitten Lock in 2024.

Waterways Deepening

Jeremy LaDart, planning division chief for the Mobile District, then spoke on the new feasibility study for improving (i.e. deepening) the Tenn-Tom and BWT. The district received $400,000 in the fiscal year 2022 Energy & Water Appropriations bill to initiate that study, which will consider the feasibility of deepening the waterways to 12 feet. LaDart said he thinks the study, due to some complexities on the waterways, will take longer than the now-typical three-year period and $3 million budget. LaDart said his team thinks four years and $5 million is more likely for the study. If recommended for construction, the project would be cost-shared between the federal government and the Inland Waterways Trust Fund.

Coast Guard Reports

Reports from Coast Guard Sector Mobile began with Capt. LaDonn Allen, commander of the sector. Allen is finishing up her three years at the helm for the sector, with Capt. Ulysses Mullins set to relieve her in a June 17 change of command ceremony.

Allen highlighted the huge amount of vessel construction that takes place within Sector Mobile’s area of responsibility. She also praised operators based within the sector, with only a handful of older vessels still in need of Subchapter M certificates of inspection. Finally, Allen challenged vessel and terminal operators to remain vigilant with regard to cybersecurity threats.

“I’m afraid to say it’s here to stay,” Allen said regarding cyber attacks.

Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway Association annual meeting attendees also heard from Cmdr. Daniel Kilcullen, chief of prevention for the sector, and Lt. Cmdr. Cristina Nelson, chief of inspections. Lt. Andy Anderson, chief of waterways for Sector Mobile, then spoke briefly on hurricane operations for the region. Specifically, Anderson said the sector will employ a “modified Yankee status” this year ahead of approaching storms which will allow for some movement of vessels prior to setting port condition Zulu.

Two highlights of the Corps and Coast Guard presentations were waterway managers honoring Larry Merrihew, the longtime president of the waterway association who retired about a year ago. Corps officials gave Merrihew a flag that had flown aboard one of the district’s tenders. Allen gave Merrihew a commemorative coin in honor of his service to the waterway.