Corps of Engineers finalizes lock and dam plan

Published 11:05 pm Wednesday, October 10, 2012

By Katie Wood
The Selma Times-Journal

A plan concerning the locks along the Alabama River that has had everyone from Alabama’s Congressional delegation to individual counties along the river enraged for the past month has not only been finalized, but looks different from the initial guidance given by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mobile District announced Wednesday their plan to change the lock hours of operation on the Alabama and Chattahoochee Rivers, the two rivers in Alabama that were reclassified as the lowest level of service on the Locks Level of Service scale earlier this year.

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According to Pat Robbins, public affairs officer for the Mobile District, the plan, which barred recreational users from traveling through the locks on the Alabama River, caused Alabama representatives to send letters urging the Corps to reconsider and prompted stakeholders to fight for a listening session with the Corps in Monroeville on Sept. 19, was merely a guidance based on the study that came from Corps’ headquarters and not an official plan.

“It was not our plan,” Robbins said. “I mean, it was headquarter’s plan that this is where you will get to, because of the budget situation, but it wasn’t our plan of how we were going to get there.”

Robbins said, “Once that guidance came out, we were directed by Sept. 29 to submit a plan how we were going to get from our current level of service to our new level of service.”

The stakeholders however, were told by Wynne Fuller, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers chief of operations for the Mobile District, at the meeting in Monroeville that the directive was in fact a plan.

“In the fall of 2011, our administration came out with a directive that all agencies would be tasked to identify programs that were considered low performing … to help address the national deficit,” Fuller said on Sept. 19. “In response to this, the Corps developed an umbrella plan.”

The plan revealed on Wednesday looks very different from the plan that stakeholders were infuriated over in September.

However, Robbins said the Mobile District didn’t resubmit a plan after the meeting with the stakeholders; rather they were finalizing their version of the plan.

“We didn’t resubmit a plan. We hadn’t even submitted our plan yet,” he said. “The plans were not due until the end of September.”

Robbins said they submitted their plan to headquarters on Sept. 29 and headquarters approved their plan on Oct. 7.

“I think a lot of what they put in [the plan] was a result of the public and the pressure – some of the comments from the various city and counties up and down our river system sent [the Corps], and some of the work of some of our congressional delegation did,” Jerry Sailors, president of the Coosa-Alabama River Improvement Association said after hearing news of the Corps’ finalized plan. “I think they listened to some of the comments made down at the summit meeting in Monroeville, and said that this is reasonable compromise on what the initial proposal was, and its what they came up with.”

When the Times-Journal asked the Corps if the letters sent by U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, Gov. Bentley, and the fact that counties along the Alabama River had a federal court injunction against the Corps’ plan ready to be filed, affected the plan in any way, Robbins responded, “No. No. No.”

Whether or not outside influences affected the plan, Sailors believes it is one the stakeholders will accept.

“Well, considering what it could have been, I am pleased. I think it’s a reasonable compromised on what the Corps was trying to do, and what the stakeholders wanted,” Sailors said. “As long as people understand that there are the times they can use the locks, and schedule accordingly, I think they’ll accept it.”

According to the Corps’ new plan the locks operating hours will shift from seven days a week to four days a week, but will increase by two hours a day, effective Feb. 1.

The locks will be closed on holidays and when lock operators are on annual or sick leave.

Lock operations on the Alabama River have been cut from 10 operators down to four. Meaning there will only be one operator at each of the three locks on the Alabama River and one supervisor.

The days the locks will be open for operation vary by season. During the spring and summer the locks will be staffed Friday through Monday, and during the fall and winter months, October through February, the locks will be staffed Monday through Thursday.

As previous reports had stated, all commercial traffic must schedule an appointment for lockage. Locks will be made available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for appointments for commercial traffic.

Recreational traffic was originally reported in the Corps’ plan to be restricted entirely. Now the plan will allow non-commercial, recreational traffic during the hours of lock operation, based on the availability of lock operators.

“Recreational traffic will be locked through in conjunction with maintenance activities,” Robbins said. “You’re only going to have one operator there, and if he needs to be working on some other maintenance activity on that lock that does not involve open and closing the gates, then he needs to go ahead and finish what he’s doing.”

Robbins explained if a recreational boat arrived at a lock while the lock operator has other maintenance activity to do, the vessel would have to sit and wait until the operator was finished, before they operated the lock.

“If you showed up in a recreational boat and [the lock operator] still has an hour’s worth of work to do before he would get to open and close the gates as part of his maintenance activity, you’d have to wait till he got ready,” Robbins said.

The current plan is one that will be evaluated annually. Sailors said he is urging people to use the locks so continued use of both commercial and recreational traffic through the locks will be permitted.

“The Corps’ going to evaluate this annually. If the usage rate doesn’t demand that they stay with this particular set of operating policies they may change it,” Sailors said. “So we have got to make sure that the locks are used at a higher rate then they have been.”

The Corps advised non-commercial traffic to contact the locks prior to planning a trip to ensure the lock is operational.

The three locks and dams along the Alabama River are Claiborne Lock (251-282-4575), Millers Ferry (334-682-4877) and R.F. Henry (334-872-9525).