Demopolis Lock, located on the Tombigbee River just below its confluence with the Black Warrior River, has been in a non-scheduled closure since January 16 and is now expected to remain closed until May. Its roughly 12 transits a day will have to take the longer route around via the Mississippi River to get to the Gulf.
What was disturbing about the Demopolis Lock closure was the manner of its failure. There was no allision involved; the lock operator heard a “boom” as the 70-year-old concrete in the upper miter gate sill failed.
“Obviously this closure is going to have a significant impact on business and industry in Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky, and beyond,” said Mitch Mays, administrator of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority and president of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Council. “This is going to be a disruption for a lot of companies.”
The extended non-scheduled closure of the Demopolis Lock is a good illustration of what we and other waterways advocates have always said—the entire system is only as strong as its weakest link, and all the links must be maintained together. It was only a few years ago that the Corps was talking about a “fix as fail” system.
When the entire inland waterway system is at full functioning and all its parts are working, it can provide options. In both drought conditions—like we’ve seen the last two years—and high water on the Mississippi River, the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway can serve as a viable alternative route to and from the Gulf of Mexico. This season, though, that’s not an option for operators, due to the closure at Demopolis Lock.
The Corps, which says it is ready to execute an in-the-wet repair plan at Demopolis to minimize disruption, has praised industry cooperation and communication in response to this latest unscheduled emergency. It is indeed impressive when teams of “doctors” succeed in rescuing the “patient” again and again. But preventive medicine—i.e., a permanent, sustainable level of lock and dam funding and maintenance—is preferable.
The Demopolis failure is a reminder that while recent infrastructure bills have provided a welcome shot of funding to the lock and dam system, they amount to an 11th-hour rescue after decades of under-investment, and their effect has been blunted by inflation. It took decades for the system to reach this level of need, and it won’t be reversed in a few years.