Fairmont Concerned About Opekiska, Hildebrand Lock Closures

The State Journal
31 July 2012
By Pam Kasey

Recreational users of the upper Monongahela River are concerned about further proposed curtailments on operation of the river's three locks in that area. But standing to lose the most, possibly, is the city of Fairmont.

"How are we going to attract new development, new industry, when we don't have that access to the river?" asked Fairmont City Councilman Robert Sapp.

Fairmont lies at the point where West Fork and the Tygart Valley River come together to form the Monongahela River.  Its commercial and recreational access downriver — north toward Morgantown and, ultimately, to Pittsburgh and the Ohio River — depend on the ability to lock through.

But, following funding cuts, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is prioritizing high-use locks over low-use locks nationwide. On the upper Mon, the Corps' Pittsburgh District proposes to close the Opekiska and Hildebrand locks to recreational boats starting in October, with commercial traffic locking through only by appointment, and to reduce service at the Morgantown Lock to one shift a day on weekends and holidays only.

Sapp concedes that traffic through the Opekiska and Hildebrand locks has been sparse: two commercial lockages each in fiscal 2011, with recreational lockages numbering in the low hundreds.

And he understands that Corps funding for operations and maintenance was cut in half system-wide, including a drop in the Pittsburgh District from $8.4 million in fiscal 2011 to $4 million in fiscal 2012. The proposed closures would save the Pittsburgh District $400,000 to $500,000 a year, Col. William Graham said at a July 17 presentation in Morgantown about the schedule changes.

Still, he worries it may not be easy to undo this once it's done.

Fairmont's plight

Sapp is concerned about the fate of successful river events.

"We have a nationally sanctioned bass tournament here," he said. The West Virginia BASS Federation lists two events in 2012 on the Upper Mon: an invitational championship in the Point Marion pool — the pool created at Morgantown by the Point Marion Dam — and a high school championship in the Opekiska pool.

"Those individual teams dump $600 each into the local economy," he said — that was 60 teams in this year's invitational. "Closing locks isolates the Opekiska and Hildebrand pools. Before, they would actually use those pools and lock through 45 boats at a time, and now these tournaments are going to have to look at going on down the river or to another location."

But Sapp also worries that lock closures would significantly restrict Fairmont's development opportunities.

"The coal shipping coming out of this area is not there anymore, but we do have some very exciting riverfront development plans," he said.

"And if we have an industry that wants to come in, are they going to be willing to take the chance that we can get the locks re-opened?" he asked. "If that need is not there for three or four years, how much more disrepair are the locks going to fall into and how much is the silting of the rivers going to create a large dollar figure to open them back up?"

Asked about the current maintenance of two locks that were closed on the upper Allegheny River in Pennsylvania last fall, USACE spokesman Dan Jones said the Corps sends someone out to cycle the locks open and closed about once a month to keep the machinery in working order and to move any silt through.

It would be the same arrangement at Opekiska and Hildebrand, Jones said.

Lack of models

When Graham spoke in Morgantown, he sought outside-the-box thinking for keeping the locks open — including, for example, cost-sharing among some combination of local and state governments.

Jones was unaware of an existing cost-share arrangement, either in the Pittsburgh District or anywhere.

He pointed instead to 2008 case studies of rivers where business declined and lock ownership and operation were transferred to states.

The experience is mixed. Eleven locks and dams on the Muskingum River transferred to the state of Ohio in 1958 are a jewel of local tourism, logging about 6,000 lockages each year, although the system struggles increasingly with funding shortfalls. Locks 5 through 14 on the Kentucky River, transferred to the state of Kentucky in the 1990s and 2000s, suffer from inadequate funding and, at the time of the case study, were closed to traffic.

Getting the parties talking

A resolution drafted by the Upper Monongahela River Association and circulated to the local governments and organizations in the area proposes that the locks be open for 45 days April through October. It also suggests the possible use of volunteers to operate the locks or the formation of an Upper Mon Port Authority to solicit and manage funds for their operation.

Morgantown, Fairmont, Monongalia and Marion counties and Sen. Joe Manchin are in conversation now about these issues, Sapp said.

"It really goes back to, in this country, are we going to look at investing in our infrastructure? Or are we going to cut the funding in order to take care of other issues and start shutting down bridges and locks and — the list goes on," he said.