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.
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,"
"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
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
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
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.