WJ Editorial

No Project Left Behind

It’s been two years since a floating guidewall at Wilson Lock and Dam on the Tennessee River system was sunk in 80 feet of water by Hurricane Ida, creating a bottleneck at the lock. Average lock processing time has also risen to about seven hours, with outliers of 10 hours, according to analysis by the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Corps of Engineers presented at the recent Tennessee River Valley Association meeting. Downbound lockages can only take place during daylight hours, a problem that compounds as winter approaches and the days shorten. Tows have waited up to 48 hours to transit.

The original Wilson Dam structure was funded by congressional appropriations, but its owner, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), no longer gets appropriations from Congress. It stopped getting them in the 1950s for its power operations, and in the late 1990s for its non-power operations. The dam is operated under a lease agreement by the Corps of Engineers, which does receive appropriations. That arrangement leaves unclear who is responsible for funding major emergency repairs like a new guidewall.

It’s not just private industry that needs Wilson Lock. It is also the transit point for a number of large rocket sections and other large key components of our nation’s space program. That makes its maintenance an urgent matter of national security.

As its critics noted when it was created by Congress in 1933 as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the TVA is an anomaly in many ways. When asked how he would explain his proposal for the TVA to Congress, Roosevelt famously replied, “I’ll tell them it’s neither fish nor fowl. But whatever it is, it will taste awfully good to the people of the Tennessee Valley.” It has always been a political football that coexisted uneasily with other federal agencies with overlapping missions.

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The solution to the Wilson Lock guidewall replacement wrangle clearly lies with Congress, which created the TVA and presided over the political compromises that gave it its current status. The entire inland waterways and river system functions as one interconnected network. It is only as strong as its weakest point. It follows that there should be no orphaned projects. Congress should step up with a special appropriation to address the Wilson Lock logjam.