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Repairs ‘Critical’ At Arkansas River Lock And Dams

BARLING — The James W. Trimble Lock and Dam is the most used lock on the 447-mile McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System for commercial purposes, but that hasn’t kept “Lock 13” from facing budget cuts and a loss of preventive maintenance.

Actions such as “de-water inspections,” where the lock is drained for inspection twice a year, have been suspended, according to Joseph Hooks, U.S. Corps of Engineers maintenance manager and supervisory civil engineer with the Russellville Project Office. The loss of the inspections has led to at least one valve failure on Lock 8.

Preventive maintenance has given way to repairs when needed, and there are $90 million in backlogged repairs along the river system.

“It’s like an antique car,” said Hooks. “It works well, but it has some weak points.”

The lock and dams on the M-KARNS were built in the late 1960s and dedicated as a system June 5, 1971, by President Richard Nixon at the Tulsa Port of Catoosa.

The river saw $3.9 billion in trade last year. The system has more traffic now than in the 1970s and less manpower, says Corps of Engineers Lock Master Gordon Hamblin, who oversees the locks at Barling and Ozark.

Each of the 18 locks has a crew of five operators who work on 12-hour rotating shifts, and one mechanic who works 10-h0ur days Monday through Thursday. One lock master covers two locks.

In a tour of Lock 13 last week, Hamblin showed off a tidy operation, with high-tech equipment to track towboats. Downstairs in the “gallery,” hundreds of feet of wiring that controls the gates, valves and pumps is held away from the wall on stainless steel runners. Ventilation keeps the area as dry as possible, but electrical work makes up about 60 percent of the immediate repairs at the lock, Hamblin said.

“Manpower has been cut back to the bone,” Hamblin said. “Twenty years ago, maintenance staff was double what it is now. The the system is older so it requires more maintenance.”

Gene Higginbotham, director of the Arkansas Waterways Commission, brought it to the attention of 23 mayors of municipalities from North Little Rock to Tulsa in a Fort Smith meeting last week that the 18 lock and dams along the Arkansas River navigation system have more than $90 million in maintenance needs considered “critical.”

“Critical” means there is a 50-50 chance that a piece would fail within five years. Actually, there is a much bigger number to the maintenance issues reaching into the $120 million range, but the $90 million is the minimum amount needed for the 18 locks on the M-KARNS. One of the biggest projects is a $60 million rehabilitation of the “tainter gates” at four locations, required to maintain the navigation pool.

Other big jobs include replacement of dam-control wiring at multiple locations for $9 million, and replacement of the “pintle balls,” which are said to be so badly worn that they no longer accept grease.

A replacement for Hamblin, who will retire in December after 28 years with the Corps of Engineers, has not been named yet. He and other lock crew members are wondering how the Corps can keep up with regularly scheduled maintenance when repairs are pulling maintenance crews away from their jobs for repairs.

To try to get ahead of the maintenance game, the Corps of Engineers Little Rock and Tulsa Districts propose to begin this October having one of the five floating repair stations based at the Dardanelle Marine Terminal be dedicated to preventive maintenance in an effort to cut down on future repairs. John Balgavy, program manager for the Little Rock and Tulsa Districts, said he is rolling as much of the 2015 budget as possible into maintenance.

The Little Rock District, which is in charge of a majority of the 18 locks, gets $32.43 million for navigation projects, according to Laurie Driver of the Corps’ public information office. That has been about average for 10 years, with some spikes for emergency repairs of the flood-problematic Three Rivers area in southeast Arkansas.

In 2013, about 12.3 million tons of material valued at $3.9 billion was moved up and down the river. In fiscal year 2012, recreational impact was valued at $115.4 million. More recreational use is seen at the Murray Lock and Dam in Little Rock than in the Fort Smith area, but in all the M-KARNS saw more than 3 million recreational visits in 2013.

Although the locks are open to commercial traffic 24 hours a day, recreational use of the locks is not accessible from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday, excluding holidays. A June 1, 2013, regulation calls this the “Default Maintenance Period,” intended to prolong the life of the system, and increase the number of maintenance hours to address routine and critical maintenance needs (when required) to improve reliability and reduce unscheduled outages at these locations.”

On average, the 110-foot-wide, 600-foot-long lock near Barling is filled three to four times a day so thousands of tons of materials can be towed calmly up and down the river. The M-KARNS sees about 44 percent of its tonnage related to agriculture, such as wheat and fertilizers, with 16 percent energy resources, 17 percent industrial metals, and 24 percent sand and gravel.

Although Lock 13 is being as well-kept as possible, for how long is a question of concern for many in the Arkansas Waterways Commission and Oklahoma Department of Transportation. The 45-year-old system has pieces of equipment that have far exceeded life expectancy and although they do their best to maintain the locks, they could do a better job with more manpower and funding, says Hamblin.

There is a possibility now with Section 1024 of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 that the private sector will be allowed to help fund projects.

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