Users Board Meeting Includes Project Delay Notices, Forecasts For Low Water

The fight against record-breaking low water in the mid-Mississippi Valley and updates on construction projects dominated the Inland Waterways Users Board meeting October 19.

The meeting was held at the Hilton Springfield Hotel in Springfield, Va.

The IWUB is an advisory board established to monitor the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF) and to make recommendations to the Army and to Congress on investment priorities to support inland navigation infrastructure needs using resources from the fund. 

Board Priorities

Board member Marty Hettel briefly questioned how the lack of a congressional spending plan, the government operating on a continuing resolution and the possibility of a government shutdown on November 17 would affect the Corps’ navigational programs and dredging.

The answer from the Corps of Engineers was that as those programs are essential for life, health, safety and national security, they would continue and that any additional Civil Works money left over from previous years could also be used as needed to pay for that work. Operations and maintenance work would also continue. Hettel also asked about contracts with non-governmental dredges. Currently contracted dredging will continue using the money already allocated, but no new contract dredging will be possible under the continuing resolution. Any contracts that might expire during a shutdown cannot be renewed with new money but could use leftover Civil Works money unused in previous years.

Maj. Gen. William “Butch” Graham, executive director of the Inland Waterways Users Board and deputy commanding general for civil and emergency operations, began by giving his thanks to those responsible for dredging during an unprecedented year of low-water conditions.

“We saw the indicators or warnings earlier than we did last year, so they didn’t miss a beat,” he said. “They started to dredge and overdredge, particularly the harbors that are the key life to your industry.”

He also commended the Rock Island Engineer District for completing the reopening of the Illinois Waterway on time after a four-month closure in which maintenance and rehabilitation projects took place at three locks.

“We challenged them when we had some funding shortfalls, and they had to get creative, but they rose to the occasion,” Graham said. “They certainly have my thanks. They never took their eye off the ball.”

Board chairman Spencer Murphy also focused his attention on the low-water threat,

“The Corps’ dedicated focus on identifying and addressing low water hotspots is keeping vital commodities moving at a critical time,” he said.

He also encouraged the Corps to think of any proactive steps it can to manage the inland marine transportation system, suggesting the potential value of an incident command system to be stood up during times of either high- or low-water as one possibility.

“As we’ve seen the Corps and other federal partners come together on an emergency basis to manage impounded water across different jurisdictions, ultimately, this is one system, and it should be managed accordingly. There are always competing priorities and difficult decisions to be made, but we should prepare for years like 2022 and 2023 to be the new normal. Whether it’s working with TVA to release water from dams to aid navigation or adjusting the Old River control structure to fight saltwater intrusion in New Orleans, there are many opportunities for the Corps to lead the way on a holistic water management system.”

Turning to some of the ongoing projects, Murphy also expressed disappointment from the board that the Corps chose not to include the reallocation of funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act from the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (MKARNS) deepening project to the Three Rivers project in the most recent spending plan that was released in August.

In April, the board unanimously passed a motion in support of the reallocation, which would have funded the Three Rivers project to completion, he said.

“With significant overruns impacting the affordability to complete any of the IIJA funded projects, this was an easy opportunity to get one of those projects funded to completion and off the books,” Murphy said. “Moreover, the Three Rivers project is critical for the success of any deepening on that system. We once again urge the Corps to reallocate this money so we can move this project to completion with a quicker timeline.”

Additionally, Murphy spoke about some items the board would like the Corps to cover in its discussion. He began by reiterating the importance of receiving updated and accurate capability numbers “as this remains a top priority for the board.” While understanding those numbers may be procurement-sensitive for Upper Mississippi Lock and Dam 25 and Montgomery Lock and Dam, he specifically asked for fiscal year 2025 and out-year capabilities upon award of those contracts.

Another important consideration discussed in the past, he said, is the use of continuing contract authority as “an important tool to keep these projects on schedule and within budget.”

“We believe it is important for the Corps to proactively and aggressively pursue approval of this authority and ask the Corps to please provide an update on using this method for upcoming projects and how the board can support this effort.”

Murphy noted that every member of the IWUB’s term is due to lapse on January 30, 2024.

“We request an update on those appointments so that we can continue our mission without disruption. I believe that our collective mission was harmed by the dissolution of this board in 2021 and the slow startup following the zero-based review. We have too many projects and too many trust fund dollars at stake to allow another disruption to the board.”

Finally, for the next meeting, he asked the Corps to provide an update on the status of the inland waterway studies and, most importantly, he said, the path forward for updating the Capital Investment Strategy. That strategy  which helps prioritize how IWTF money should be spent, was last completed in 2020 and is due again in 2025.

The board’s only action taken during the meeting was, on motion of board vice chairman Damon Judd, a unanimous vote to encourage the use of incremental financing in the design of the schedule and funding for the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program (NESP), which the Corps believes will help to avoid delays to the schedule and potential cost overruns to the program, including with Upper Mississippi Lock and Dam 25.

The project is in procurement, which involves early interaction with contractors, so the Corps cannot publicly share its estimated costs without potentially affecting the bidding process. However, Jose Lopez, St. Louis District, project manager for Lock & Dam 25, and Andrew Goodall, NESP regional manager for the Rock Island District, were able to share that bids received on September 29 for integrated design and construction reflected a “healthy competitive environment” that was in alignment with the Corps’ certified project cost estimates received in June. However, market escalation risk is still being felt by industry and remains a cost risk for the project, they said.

A 35 percent design review for the project is scheduled to be completed November 13. The Corps is also starting the real estate acquisition process for staging and laydown areas and borrowing areas.

Low Water

Patrick Chambers, the Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division chief of operations and regulatory, noted that Cairo, Ill., experienced a new record low over the past few weeks of 4.5 feet, beating the record of 4.8 feet set in 2022. The gauge at Cairo is currently at 5.8 feet, but the 28-day forecast has it falling again to 5.0 feet, Chambers said.

The river gage at Memphis has set multiple record lows this season, at first -11.5 feet on October 11 and then falling again to a new record -11.98 feet on October 17, nearly 1 foot below the -10.8 feet set in 2022. The 28-day forecast calls for the level to be maintained, with no major rises or falls.

“Some recent rainfall in the Upper Mississippi has provided some slight rises in the Lower, and it does appear, fingers crossed, that our weather pattern may be changing, so hopefully we’ll start seeing some more rain,” Chambers said.

He noted, however, that only rain falling on the water is helping, as any rain falling on land is being immediately absorbed by the parched soil.

Currently about half of the water in the Lower Mississippi is coming from either the Missouri River or from the Ohio, with major assistance from upstream reservoirs on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers that are being lowered to their winter pools.

The Corps anticipates that the initial impacts of Missouri River reductions will be felt at St. Louis by November 28, with full impacts felt by December 14 and the lowest stage of a potential -3.9 feet around Christmas. The Corps currently anticipates a drop of 2 feet through the St. Louis reach after Missouri flows are reduced.

Hettel asked if there was any possibility of delaying the reduction at Gavins Point Dam on the Missouri, but the Corps is not able to do so under its authority.

Hettel asked if losing 2 feet at St. Louis could mean losing 1 foot at Memphis, but the answer he received was that it is not necessarily so and all dependent on the amount and location of rain received.

Corps officials hoped to create some upstream storage from the Kaskaskia River  and were also looking at any other adjustments they might be able to make elsewhere with the authorities they currently have.

The division’s regional shallow draft team is meeting weekly to discuss priorities, Chambers said, and bi-weekly calls are taking place with the navigation industry. The Mississippi Valley Division, the Great Lakes and Ohio River Division, the National Weather Service and the Tennessee Valley Authority are all coordinating releases, particularly at Kentucky and Barkley Dams and Olmsted Dam, he said.

Additionally, dustpan dredges were released from dredging deep-draft duties early and were able to get to some problem areas early. However, he noted operational limitations on the aging dredges–all of which are more than 30 years old and two of which are more than 90 years old–  that do the bulk of this work.

Additionally, the only contracted dredge, the Wallace McGeorge, cannot operate above Cairo by contract, Chamber said.

Hettel noted that the Wallace McGeorge is currently dredging at Tunica Bend and then will move back to dredging deep draft crossings in the Memphis and Vicksburg areas of responsibility.

“We’ve got them on a short leash,” Chambers said, speaking of the Corps’ ability to have the dredge respond quickly to any problem areas that arise.

“I appreciate your commitment to move it up, if needed, as soon as possible,” Hettel said.

One point of positive news was that the saltwater sill the Corps built at Lower Mississippi River Mile 64 in July and began raising in September has been more effective than originally anticipated, Chambers said.

The sill raising was completed October 12. The toe of the saltwater wedge had reached as high as Mile 74, but the toe is back below the sill, and current flows are holding it there, he said.

Chambers said lessons learned from the 2022 low water have led to the involved agencies coordinating reservoir operations much more closely, including having more frequent forecasts and including hydropower operations in forecasts. Additionally, he said, the Ohio River system operated much more efficiently this season, which has helped.

The U.S. Coast Guard and the Corps of Engineers are also working together on buoy placement with electronic Aids to Navigation updated daily in most circumstances, Chambers said. The Corps’ mv. George C. Grugett and mv. Pathfinder are also augmenting physical buoy placement.

Draft restrictions continue, with 7-foot draft restrictions on the Lower Arkansas River below Montgomery Point. A dredge was scheduled to arrive October 22, and it was expected about a week to complete dredging to 12 feet at that location.

The lower Ohio River is restricted to one-way navigation with no southbound traffic at night.

Joe Savage, Great Lakes & Ohio Division program director, noted that while the winter drawdown has begun in most of system, the system hasn’t experienced the same rain as in summers past, and some reservoirs didn’t achieve full summer pool this year, meaning there is not as much water available to supplement the rest of the system.

“Certainly we’ll have some added flows, but not to the same degree we had last year,” he said.

Hettel asked for verification as he understood that Barkley and Kentucky lakes were already at that their low-water drawdown level, but no verification was immediately available.

Project Updates

Project managers ran through each of the projects that have received funding for construction or design.

Stephen Fritz, mega projects manager for the Pittsburgh district, noted that the completion of Monongahela River locks 2, 3 and 4 replacements have been delayed from May 2026 to May 2027 for completion of the project as a whole because of feedback from contractors bidding on the demolition of Lock and Dam 3 at Elizabeth, Pa.

The project will still be operational with the breaching of the dam next July, but it will take longer to remove the lock chamber, he said.

Additionally, the Corps had expected that Lock and Dam 4 at Charleroi would be fully operational in January, but that has now been delayed until April. The contract is scheduled to be complete in September.

“We are having some challenges with electrical and mechanical systems that we are moving through,” Fritz said.

He said some traffic will be moving through in February as the old chamber will still be available at that time.

“That little bit of a schedule adjustment for us is a lesson learned for us,” Fritz said, adding that it will be applied to make sure more time is scheduled for demolition of chambers on the upper Ohio as part of that project.

Additionally, he said that the Corps has determined it will keep the filling and emptying system of the existing landside lock chamber at Charleroi operational once the new chamber is open so that it can be used to lock debris during periods of high water.

Turning to the Upper Ohio Project, Fritz said the Montgomery project will depend on the Capital Investment Strategy for additional funding because of the latest certified cost estimate, which meant the project could not be funded to completion through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. However, the project is still on track to award the major contract for construction of the new riverside chamber in fall 2024 and should begin advertising that in December.

Additionally, the Corps expects overall cost certification of the Upper Ohio project by the end of the calendar year. The previous cost certification was only for Montgomery Locks and Dam, he said.

At Emsworth, preliminary design efforts have started, with physical modeling under construction. Inriver geotechnical and environmental investigations have been completed, and real estate acqusiition for the future batch plant and potential laydown sites have been initiated.

Design at Dashields is due to begin in 2025, with preliminary efforts to include geotechnical, environmental and real estate acquisition.

Following the briefing, Hettel commented that instead of these projects being funded to completion under IIJA, they will take eight to nine years of using IWTF funding to fully pay for the projects’ completion if Congress does not appropriate additional money for them under the Water Resources Development Act or another method.

Elizabeth Burks, chief of the integrated project office for the Chickamauga Lock Replacement Project and Kentucky Lock Addition Project for the Nashville Engineer District, said that the Chickamauga project, originally scheduled to be operational in 2024, is now expected to take until late 2026 or into 2027 based on the fiscal year 2023 cost certified estimate, which was updated in March. As of September 23, the project was 46 percent completed. The lock chamber contractor’s operational schedule is approximately 646 days behind, she said. The Corps continues to work with the contractor in an alternate dispute resolution, but the issue could wind up in court if they are unable to reach a settlement, Burks said.

Turning to Kentucky Lock, the Great Lakes and Ohio River Division performed an updated total project cost estimate that was not certified in May and anticipates no significant cost changes. Completion of the downstream monolith contract is expected in May 2027 with the new lock now scheduled to be operational in July 2029 and the project to be completed in September 2030.