Crisis, Hope On The Rivers

The Waterways Journal - Editorial
25 March 2013

It’s odd to think of the devastating flood of 2011 and the ongoing drought as helping to save the waterways system, but that could happen. Together, those two events focused unprecedented attention from the “regular” media on the perilous state of the nation’s broken and crumbling waterways system, helped by the collaborative efforts of the American Waterways Operators, Waterways Council Inc. and other friends of the waterways, who worked together.

The floods and drought accelerated the damage to our decades-old locks and dams. In the latest news, the Montgomery locks at Monaca, Pa., part of a strategic series of Ohio River navigation facilities, need to be dewatered for desperately needed repairs.

There’s only one problem: after dewatering, “there’s a good chance [the lock walls] will fall,” said Col. Bernard Lindstrom, Pittsburgh Engineer District commander. He said the locks “are in such bad condition that they spurt water; when the river is high, it shoots five to six feet in the air.” The problem threatens the movement of about $5.6 billion worth of materials through the local waterways, according to a Corps spokesman.

The timing of this particular announcement may be a bit of “sequester theater;” the Beaver County Times said, “Budget cuts triggered by the sequestration may very well cause the Montgomery Locks in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, to collapse.” According to the March 8 Capitol Currents, publication of The Waterways Council, the “long-feared sequestration” has automatically forced across-the-board cuts in funding for most federal departments and agencies, including the Corps and Coast Guard. “While not felt immediately, transportation stands to take a hit—not just in on-going construction (like port-deepening projects) and essential lock maintenance but at deep-draft docks, navigation locks, airports, etc. Officials are already cutting back on overtime and handing out notices of possible furloughs, some as much as one day per week.”

But the sequester is only the immediate news hook. Everyone connected with the waterway system knows that its infrastructure is indeed crumbling and has been for many years.

This year, though, such stories are getting more attention. Several bills working their way through Congress have features sought for years by waterways interests. Let’s hope a dent has finally been made in that neglect that has been the main obstacle to fixing our waterways.