Talks to Open Mon River Locks Set

Estimated annual cost is $40,000

Morgantown Dominion Post
22 September 2014
By David Beard

The Upper Monongahela River Association (UMRA) is poised to begin talks with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers to reopen several locks to boaters.

UMRA President Barry Pallay said the organization received verbal notification from two Corps officials, and is awaiting formal notice of the composition of the Corps negotiating team.

The goal, he said, is to have the Corps operate the Opekiska and Hildebrand locks two weekends per month from April through October, starting in 2015, and to keep the Morgantown locks open on weekends year-round.

The association aims to do this by paying the corps to operate the locks during those times, Pallay said. It’s called a “contributed funds” arrangement, and UMRA is securing financial partners to cover the estimated annual cost.

Corps spokesman Dan Jones said Congress enabled this arrangement through the Water Resources Development Act, signed by the president in June. That gave the Corps the OK to start negotiations with UMRA. A couple things to work out will be the exact cost – determined by the number of days the locks would be open – and the precise mechanism for accepting the money.

The Monongalia County Commission made the formal request to the Corps to begin the process, County Administrator Diane DeMedici said. The county will also act as the pass-through agency to send the money to the Corps. Money would be collected and sent next spring.

Pallay said, “We want to increase the commerce on the Upper Mon River and help make it, once again, an economic driver. “…There’s a lot riding on negotiating the agreements and getting final approval.”

For example, he said, Marion County has come on board as a coalition partner. The county has committed to a weekend regional bass tournament – a national qualifier – in June 2015. It won the bid on the condition the locks are open and would draw bass enthusiasts from five surrounding states, bringing in a possible $70,000.

County Administrator Kris Cinalli couldn’t be reached for details on the county’s role.

Pallay said more tournaments, more activities, more boaters and, eventually more commercial traffic could add up to significant local revenue.

Right now, the Opekiska and Hildebrand locks are closed, except for special weekend occasions, and the Morgantown locks operate for commercial traffic Mondays-Fridays 7AM-3PM. As previously reported, federal budget cuts have closed locks or cut back operating hours across the nation.

In 2012, Pallay said, the Corps informed UMRA of the likelihood of service reductions, and in 2013 it closed Opekiska and Hildebrand and eliminated Morgantown’s weekend hours.

The Corps rejected UMRA’S proposal for the group to operate the locks, but allowed it to move forward on the contributed funds approach.

The approach required significant red tape, Pallay said. Local partnerships, approval at three levels of command, more approval in several US House and Senate committees and an OK from the assistant secretary of the Army.

“This is all to give them money to operate the locks.”

Pallay credited reps David McKinley, Nick Rahall and Shelley Moore Capito, and Sen. Joe Manchin, for their work in pushing the effort through.

He also thanked the Mon County Commission and Marion County Commission for their work. Other local organizations and agencies will be approached about contributing funds.

And across the Pennsylvania border, the Allegheny River Development Corp. (ARDC) has been doing the same work, Pallay said, to open four locks there – with members of that Congressional delegation also pitching in. That effort will cost about $140,000 a year.

Ultimately, Palley said, after a few years of increased traffic, the UMRA and the ARDC would like to see the Corps resume the financial responsibility for operating the locks – as it realizes the financial benefits.
UMRA doesn’t have a timeline for completing the negotiations, Pallay said. The first item is getting the official word on the Corps team.

THE DOMINION POST solicited comments about the locks project from the four lawmakers Pallay named.

McKinely said, “Keeping our waterways open are vital for commerce, recreation and economic development. The upper Monongahela River Association has worked tirelessly for past few years to keep the locks open and we are proud to have played a role in helping them. We look forward to working with them in the coming months to see this through to fruition.”

Capito said, “As a conferee on the Water Resources Development Act, I was pleased to work with the Upper Monongahela River Association and local residents to secure a provision in the law that allows the Corps of Engineers to use privately contributed funds for lock operations. Allowing local communities to pull together to provide these resources is a commonsense way to use our water infrastructure and benefit our state’s economy and quality of life.”

Rahall was traveling and not available to comment. Manchin did not respond in time for this report.