Black Warrior-Tombigbee Stakeholders To Gather For Annual Conference

For the second year in a row, the Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway Association (WTWA) will hold its annual conference at Perdido Beach Resort in Orange Beach, Ala., with this year’s event—the 74th for the association—set for May 15–17.

The three-day event will open with a golf tournament at the Kiva Dunes golf course in nearby Gulf Shores, Ala. That evening, the association will hold an early bird reception to kick off the conference.

WTWA President Wynne Fuller said that, with the conference coinciding with the last days of the extended closure and repair work at Demopolis Lock on the Tombigbee River near Demopolis, Ala., a good bit of the discussion will focus on waterway infrastructure and how reliability and maintenance issues impact industry along the Black Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway (BWT).

“I suspect that will be the primary interest of many of our attendees,” Fuller said. “We’ll talk about the reopening of Demopolis. We’ll also meet jointly with the operators of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway (Tenn-Tom) and look at the schedule for upcoming closures on both waterways.”

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The conference will open May 16 with a users and operators meeting, which Fuller said will offer time for open discussions between commercial users and representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Coast Guard on issues, opportunities and needs on the waterway. Following that, representatives from the Mobile Engineer District, including District Commander Col. Jeremy Chapman, Operations Division Chief Nelson Sanchez, Black Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway Operations Project Manager Anthony Perkins and Tenn-Tom Operations Project Manager Justin Murphree, will update attendees on ongoing and upcoming projects, expected funding for maintenance and tonnage trends on the waterway. Julie McGuire, project manager with the district, will offer an update on the waterway improvement study, which will look at the feasibility of deepening the channel from 9 to 12 feet.

Fuller said that focus on operations and maintenance is crucial to the future of the waterway.

“The way you keep this waterway reliable is with regular maintenance,” he said.

Following the Corps presentations, a team from Coast Guard Sector Mobile, including Capt. Ulysses Mullins, commander of Sector Mobile, will address the crowd. Other speakers will include Commander Thomas Gibson, chief of prevention; Lt. Larry Schad, chief of waterways management; and the commanding officer of the cutter Wedge, Jason Herbert.

The lunch keynote speaker that day will be Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey.

“Gov. Ivey always has a very special talk for us, centered on Alabama’s economy,” Fuller said.

Afternoon sessions will open with a look at economic development on the Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway, focusing on grant opportunities in support of inland ports and terminals. Tim Pickering, operations manager from the Maritime Administration’s Office of Ports and Waterways Planning, will look at his agency’s Marine Highway system. Both the Tenn-Tom and the Warrior-Tombigbee waterways make up MarAd’s M65 system.

Following Pickering, Roger Bohnert, president of Surface Transportation Strategies, will discuss the Maritime Administration’s grant programs and the grant application process and ways grant can aid port and terminal development, from physical infrastructure to assets like material handlers.

“I think that could help some of our communities like Demopolis and Jackson, Ala., who would like to see some development of their local ports,” said Fuller, who added that grant packages “are pretty daunting unless you have advice from people who have been there and done that.”

Other afternoon sessions on May 16 will include a Port of Mobile update by John Driscoll, executive director and CEO of the Alabama Port Authority; a discussion of the Corps of Engineers’ regulatory program by Trevor Popkin, chief of the Mobile District’s regulatory division; and an update on the BTW and Tenn-Tom Waterway Improvement Study by Jeremy Ladart, chief of the planning division.

That evening will feature a reception, meal and music by the Ben Jernigan Band.

On day three of the conference, attendees will hear from Alabama State Sen. Greg Albritton; Bradley Byrne, president of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce and former U.S. representative from Alabama; Ted Clem, senior project manager for the Alabama Department of Commerce; and Clair Johnson, an attorney with Balch & Bingham, who will offer a legislative update. Horace Horn, chairman of the WTWA board of directors, will then offer closing remarks.

Fuller said, while each year’s conference offers a strategic chance for stakeholders to get together to network and plan for the future of the waterway, this year is especially weighty, given the upper miter sill failure at Demopolis and the months-long closure there.

Besides just planning the conference, Fuller said he’s been busy working with Tenn-Tom Waterway’s Mitch Mays, visiting with legislators and advocating for legislation to study the feasibility of constructing new locks at Demopolis and Coffeeville, with the existing locks converted to auxiliary chambers. Demopolis and Coffeeville are the two oldest locks on the Tombigbee River and serve as the lowermost locks on both waterways. The closure of Demopolis has essentially cut off both the Tenn-Tom and the BWT from the Port of Mobile, other than the much longer route through the Tennessee, Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

Speaking of conversations with legislators in Washington D.C., Fuller said, “I think they’re all concerned about the age and reliability of our infrastructure. The closure at Demopolis has had tens of millions of dollars’ worth of impacts on our operations.”

Registration details for the WTWA conference are available online at Hotel rooms for the conference should be reserved online at or by phone at 800-634-8001.