May 22– May 22–The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is cutting service at lock and dam No. 4 in Harrison by nearly a full work shift per day because of dwindling barge traffic and federal dollars to operate the locks and dams on the Allegheny River.
Beginning Friday, the lock in Harrison’s Natrona section will drop from two eight-hour shifts to one 10-hour shift.
By the Corps’ calculations, the number of commercial tows through the lock dropped below the required 500 annual tows averaged over three years, which is a federal standard for all locks and dams across the country, according to John Dilla, chief of the Locks and Dam Branch for the Army Corps, Pittsburgh District.
Over the years, the Corps has been scaling back its operations at eight locks and dams on the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh’s Highland Park dam, the busiest lock in the Pittsburgh area, to north of Kittanning in Armstrong County.
The Corps funding from the federal government to operate, maintain and repair the locks is dependent on barge traffic, which has been in decline on the Allegheny — or even non-existent, such as river gravel dredging operations.
In 2011, the Army Corps severely cut service at the four locks in Armstrong County when the federal government cut the budget for the Allegheny River locks by 50 percent. The locks in South Buffalo, West Kittanning, Boggs, and Madison townships were closed to recreational traffic and open to commercial vessels by appointment.
A nonprofit, the Allegheny River Development Corp. (ARDC), stepped in and cut a unique deal with the Corps, agreeing to pay the Corps to operate the four Armstrong County locks on summer weekends and holidays for pleasure boaters.
In the heavily forested upper reaches of the navigable Allegheny in Armstrong County, boating and outdoor recreation plays a major role in tourism to the region.
“They always look at (commercial boating) numbers, not the overall impact of services for significant quality of life factors and tourism,” said Linda Hemmes, president of ARDC.
Officials from the Corps Pittsburgh office have long acknowledged they have to work with the Corps’ national formulas for funding the locks and dams, which don’t consider the value of recreational boating.
ARDC will again pay to keep the Armstrong County locks open during weekend and long holiday weekends starting Friday.
ARDC is OK with their 2019 budget of $166,000, supported by grants and donations, to keep the locks open this summer. Hemmes is working on next year’s budget.
However, the future is murky because the Corps keeps funding less of its lock operations on the Allegheny as years go by.
“We went from fully funding four locks to fully funding four locks plus partially funding two locks below Armstrong County,” she said.
ARDC recently petitioned to leave the two-shifts a day at lock 4 but was not successful.
“We will wind up having to fund more hours that weren’t in my budget this year because of losing the hours at lock 4 — maybe about $15,000,” she said.
ARDC is looking at what is happening south of Armstrong County along the Allegheny River because, if lock hours continue to diminish, so will the boaters heading north into Armstron County.
“We are re-directing our focus from recreational to working with commercial and economic development along the Allegheny River,” she said.
As part of its navigation mission, the Corps of Engineers operates and maintains 23 lock and dam facilities on the area’s three main rivers — the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio.
Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary at 724-226-4691, [email protected] or via Twitter .