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Olmsted Locks and Dam a Welcome New Neighbor on Ohio River

Mary Kennedy
By  Mary Kennedy , DTN Basis Analyst
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The brand-new Olmsted Locks and Dam, 17 miles upstream from the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, was dedicated on Aug. 30, 2018, after 30 years of construction. It is the largest civil works project in the history of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

The Locks and Dams 52 and 53 Replacement Project, known as the Olmsted Locks and Dam, opened for business on Aug. 30, 2018, after 30 years of construction and a $3 billion price tag. The project suffered years of delays due to delays in funding and lack of availability of appropriations, cost increases of materials over time, unforeseen engineering problems, river conditions and other issues.

Now that it's finished, the project will generate economic net benefits to the nation of more than $640 million annually, and the structures will pay for themselves in approximately four years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) noted on its website.

"The Olmsted project consists of two 110- by 1,200-foot locks adjacent to the Illinois bank, and a dam comprised of five Tainter gates, 1,400 feet of boat-operated wickets and a fixed weir," the Corps said. A Tainter gate is a type of radial arm floodgate used in dams and canal locks to control water flow.

The Olmsted Locks and Dam replaces the aging structures Ohio River Locks and Dams 52 and 53. There will be a fourfold increase in efficiency, as Olmsted provides for a single project with twin 1,200-foot locks, noted the Corps. Reliability will also be significantly increased, as the existing locks are decades beyond their designed service life. Olmsted will greatly reduce tow and barge delays through the busiest stretch of river in America's inland waterways.

According to the USACE, Locks and Dams 52 and 53 in the lower portion of the river are remnants of the original 1929 river navigation system. More than 150 million tons of cargo pass yearly through the stretch of the Ohio River where the Olmsted Locks and Dam are located, more tonnage than at any other place in the U.S. inland navigation system. As a whole, the Ohio River carries more than 280 million tons of commodities a year.

"Locks and Dams 52 and 53 on the lower Ohio River are the last of the old wicket dams. The wickets are constructed of heavy timber about 4 feet wide and up to 20 feet long. Raising or lowering the wickets is done by a crew on a steam boiler winch barge and track hoe that moves along the upstream face of the dam," said the Corps.

The opening of Olmsted Locks and Dam originally was expected to be in October, but the early opening in August proved to be a blessing. The Waterways Journal reported that, on Aug. 24, 2018, the Louisville Engineer District told the River Industry Executive Task Force that a miter gate problem at Lock 52 almost caused another full closure at the key chokepoint. Late in the day, the district canceled a proposed 48-hour closure, because the Corps had decided to start raising the Olmsted wickets to hold navigation pools due to receding river stages.

Locks 52 and 53 have been costly for the barge industry and have hurt farmers during harvest more than once during their lifespan. In fall 2017, they were closed from Sept. 6-14 due to an unscheduled maintenance outage, halting all navigation while project personnel raised the wicket dam. This outage was in addition to the river closure at Lock 53 on Oct. 2 due to a failure of the hydraulics that open and close the lower wicket gate. Then, shortly after that closure, they were closed for nearly one week due to rising water and did not reopen until Oct. 16. That closure caused a backlog of nearly 60 vessels with over 650 barges of all commodities waiting to transit the site, according to the USDA Weekly Grain Transportation Report at that time.

The Waterways Journal reported that Marty Hettel, chairman of the Inland Waterways Users board and vice president of government affairs at American Commercial Barge Line, said the failures of Locks 52 and 53 over the past 10 years have imposed costs of about $75 million on shippers.

In fact, Lock and Dam 52 cost $2.5 million to $3 million a year to maintain, on average. In fiscal year 2017, from October 2016 to September 2017, the USACE reported that they spent $13.2 million in repairs. By September 2018, the Corps finally bid farewell to Lock 52 and its counterpart, Lock 53, thanks to the smooth opening of Olmsted.

Olmsted Lock and Dam operational achievement represents generations of innovation excellence, more than 45 million labor hours and stands as an example of the benefits provided to the nation and the Department of Defense from the work done by USACE on our nation's critical inland waterways.

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