Rising water on the Ohio River and repeated failures at Locks and Dam 52 and 53 kept river traffic shut down this week, queuing vessel traffic along a 50-mile stretch, according to the Corps of Engineers and industry advocates.

The river was closed Oct. 9 at Locks and Dam 52 due to rising river stages, as river elevations exceeded the maximum locking stage of 20.7’. Conditions projected to start falling through the weekend, the Waterways Council Inc. advised members in an update.

As of Thursday morning the queue stood at 51 towboats and vessels, with 564 barges, with transits unlikely to resume before Monday, Oct. 16. All told, it's a difficult season as harvest shipments of grain back up, delayed also by low water conditions on the Mississippi River recently.

“Based on current conditions, flows past Smithland Locks and Dam are projected to steadily rise through Friday, October 13...and then fall thereafter,” the advisory noted. “Discharges from Kentucky and Barkley Lakes are being coordinated with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the Corps of Engineers’ Nashville District in order to reduce discharges as Ohio River flows decrease. As a result of this effort, Locks and Dam 52 upper gage is projected to fall within navigable limits either late Sunday, October 15, or early Monday, October 16. “

A hydraulic failure on a gate at Lock 53 near Brookport, Ill., forced a river closure Oct. 2, the latest breakdown on river controls that have become a centerpiece of industry groups campaigning to rebuild the nation’s inland waterways.

An obstruction in the lock at 53 caused an earlier closing in mid-September, preceded early in the month by a failure of wooden wickets at Lock and Dam 52.

Commissioned in 1928, the locks and dams are to be replaced by the Olmsted Lock and Dam – authorized in 1988, and at an estimated cost of nearly $3 billion the Corps’ costliest and longest-running inland project. It is scheduled to become operational in 2018.

While tying up river traffic of grain and other commodities, the failures can also affect industrial operations and municipal water supplies along the Ohio. The dams are used to maintain pools of stable water for those uses.

Emergency repairs have included rebuilding sections of the missing dams with rock dumped into the river, installing rock dikes, and controlling river velocity from up-stream dams to allow divers to make repairs safely.

In turn there have been further delays along the Ohio River, including the locks at Smithland, Cannelton, Meldahl and Dashields.


Contributing Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.