New dam may ease ORA inconsistencies

Messenger-Inquirer

Sept. 04–Owensboro Riverport Authority President Brian Wright says he believes the new Olmsted Locks and Dam project slated to open next week more than 200 miles downstream from Owensboro could steady inbound barge traffic at the inland port.

Several critical navigational closures exactly a year ago at the Locks and Dams Nos. 52 and 53, which Olmsted is slated to replace, led to inconsistent barge deliveries at the riverport, putting added stress and pressure on dock workers there and delaying outbound traffic.

“Specifically No. 52 has been an Achilles heel for years,” Wright said. “And last year it got progressively worse. That causes our inbound volume to get delayed or stopped altogether. Then it piles up all at once. Inconsistent delivery creates additional labor hours, whether it’s overtime, weekends or contract labor. That’s our risk.”

Significant lags in river traffic can be detrimental to riverport customers, Wright said. By extension, wait times there can potentially drive up the cost of goods. If barges carrying corn to market are stopped at one of the nation’s busiest bottlenecks, it’s only logical that the price of corn flakes are going to rise.

For at least two years now, inbound barges have accounted for about 80 percent of Owensboro’s 1 million tons of traffic, meaning unstable navigational flow compounds the problem.

Delays at 52 and 53, officials say, are hardly unusual. Both aging dams, built near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers west of Paducah, are nearing 90 years old. They’re constructed of white-oak-timber or concrete-block wickets that form individual segments of the barrier. Each wicket can be lowered to the riverbed or raised back up with a steam-powered boat during times of varying water levels.

The Olmsted Locks and Dam even further west of 52 and 53 have already largely replaced them, according to a spokesperson with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The older structures are slated for demolition by 2020. The replacement project, which was envisioned as long ago as 1980, has taken almost a quarter of a century to come to fruition, and almost tripled its original budget, but some corps reports say delays on the older structures could be costing the American marketplace more than $600 million a year.

Barge traffic has already been locking through, though Wright said he hasn’t really seen a noticeable difference. That’s likely because 52 and 53 performed poorly in bad conditions, mainly. High water would clog up locks, or swift currents would disable weirs. The true test for Olmsted will be how it fares when the going gets tough, and Wright said all indications are that it has a lot of potential to clear up future delays.

“It looks promising,” he said. “We’re really eager to see a change.”

Austin Ramsey, 270-691-7302, aramsey@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @austinrramsey

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Waterways Council, Inc.