Old River Lock Closure Pushed To August 30

Col. Stephen Murphy, commander of the New Orleans Engineer District, officially announced June 8 his decision to push the pending closure of Old River Lock to August 30, two weeks later than the originally scheduled date of August 15. The move comes after representatives from the agriculture industry raised concerns over how the timing of the closure would have a negative economic impact on farmers and domestic shippers who depend on Old River Lock to get agricultural commodities from north Louisiana and Arkansas to grain elevators on the Mississippi River and, in turn, exported to world markets.

Consequently, the Vicksburg Engineer District will shift its planned closure of Lindy C. Boggs Lock, the first lock on the Red River nearest to the Mississippi, back two weeks to begin on August 30 as well. The Vicksburg and New Orleans districts have been coordinating the two closures for years, with Vicksburg planning to close Red River Lock 1 for a month, reopen for two weeks to allow vessel traffic to catch up, then close again for another month.

In announcing his decision, Murphy said he was doing his best to strike a balance between agriculture interests and concerns over the condition of Old River Lock, which is set to receive two new miter gates and have lock chamber expansion joints repaired. Old River Lock opened to navigation in March 1963 and was last fully dewatered in 1978. Old River Lock is one of the structures that makes up the Old River Control Complex, which is designed to prevent the Mississippi River from changing course to the Atchafalaya River. The complex diverts 30 percent of the Mississippi’s flow to the Atchafalaya, which also receives the total inflow of both the Red and Ouachita rivers.

“The Corps’ risk is to ensure that critically needed repairs can be properly completed in a period constrained by difficult-to-predict river levels and the availability of needed assets, while still staying synchronized with Vicksburg District’s Lock 1 dewatering, so that we can minimize the impacts of closures across the whole system, all while still accounting for variables such as hurricanes and the unforeseen site conditions for a chamber that hasn’t been fully dewatered in 46 years,” Murphy said. “The agricultural/farming industry faces the risk of ensuring that a perishable product can get to market as cheaply and efficiently as possible given supply chain challenges, market challenges and increased fuel costs, all during a limited window of opportunity (harvest season).”

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The closure will now have a planned length of 75 days, rather than 90 days, with the estimated finish date now standing at November 12.

Agricultural stakeholders met with Murphy the first week in June to push for a delay. That meeting followed a letter sent in May to Maj. Gen. Diana Holland, commander of the Mississippi Valley Division, from more than a dozen stakeholders who asked for the start date for the Old River closure to be pushed back to the fall. Closing the lock for the duration of harvest season would come at a significant cost to farmers, stakeholders have argued, with trucking and other logistical costs far outpacing traditional river transportation.

In the end, though, a mid- to late-fall start to the closure would risk the lock being closed during a wintertime high-water event, which could pose a significant risk to the lock or extend the closure itself. While the delay wasn’t all that agricultural stakeholders wanted, Mike Seyfert, president and CEO of the National Grain & Feed Association (NGFA). expressed his appreciation for Murphy’s decision.

“I thank Col. Stephen Murphy and his team in the New Orleans District for coming to the table, hearing out the concerns of agricultural stakeholders, and ultimately providing some flexibility on the timing of the Old River Lock closure,” Seyfert said. “NGFA members and farmers must be able to move commodities during harvest, but we also understand most of the U.S. lock and dam system has surpassed its designed life expectancy, and we strongly support repairs and upgrades to the system.

“This important work must be done during a time of low water, which happens to coincide with harvest time,” he added. “NGFA appreciates Col. Murphy for providing two additional weeks to keep ag commodities moving through the Old River Lock. Maintaining and modernizing America’s inland waterways transportation system is paramount to NGFA’s mission, and we look forward to staying in close communication with the Army Corps of Engineers as it continues its important work. Finally, I wish to thank Sens. John Kennedy and Bill Cassidy and Reps. Garret Graves (LA-06) and Julia Letlow (LA-05) for their support of agriculture and for helping find a better solution for impacted stakeholders.”

Industry along the Red River, which had been planning for the August 15 closure, will now synchronize plans with the new schedule, said Rich Brontoli, executive director of the Red River Valley Association.

“The Red River industries will adjust to the two-week change,” Brontoli said. “Our only concern is that this date is final and is not moved again.”

Under the new schedule, the Vicksburg District will close Lindy C. Boggs Lock August 30–September 28 to dewater the upstream gate, then October 14–November 12 to dewater the downstream gate. From September 29 to October 13, the lock will temporarily reopen to allow traffic to pass.

Now that Murphy has pushed back the date to August 30, he said all stakeholders can lock that in.

“This is my final decision and, as requested, I will not change the date now that I have decided it,” Murphy said. “My commitment to you as we move forward is to communicate actively and openly to keep you apprised of the dewatering progress. I also commit that we will do everything we can during the dewatering to complete the work as soon as possible.”