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Waterways Teamwork, Resilience Behind the Scenes (opinion)

April 12, 2024   The Waterways Journal

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In this week’s issue you can read about sudden flash floods all along the Ohio River basin that happened during April 3-5, “the most extensive floods in the Pittsburgh area since 2005.”


Of the Pittsburgh Engineer District’s 23 lock and dam facilities, 11 went out of service between 8:30 a.m. April 3 and 7:30 a.m. on April 4. The river overtopped the lock walls at Charleroi, Elizabeth and Braddock locks on the Monongahela, Allegheny locks 8, 5 and 4 and Dashields on the Ohio.


Alan Nogy, the Pittsburgh Engineer District’s operations project manager for locks and dams, said that in his 27 years on the river, it was among the top five high-water events he has seen.


The most remarkable thing about a story like this is that it isn’t a bigger story. No major damage was reported. That’s due to the resilience of our lock and dam systems, despite their age and ongoing need for repairs and funding.


It’s also due to the teamwork, preparation and experience of the many marine operators who work closely with the Corps and Coast Guard during emergency high-water events to minimize impacts. Events like this may “come and go” today, furnishing a flicker of interest on social media before giving way to the next eyeball-grabber. But in the past, events of equal severity resulted in much more damage and human cost.


Such improvement doesn’t happen by accident. It’s the result of decades of experience by marine and fleet operators in applying lessons learned from previous floods, low water events and hurricanes—as Alan Savoie notes in this issue’s article on preparing fleets for storms and hurricanes.


Recent failures and unplanned closures at Demopolis, IHNC and Port Allen locks make it abundantly clear that the resilience of our physical infrastructure has its limits. Congress and the Corps must continue to make major rehabs and replacements a top priority.

Yet even as weather and climate challenges become more uncertain, the resilience and adaptability of those who operate on our rivers, harbors and inland waterways keeps increasing. It’s a story we should never take for granted.