As dredge awaited, river traffic picking back up

This aerial shot shows the shoaling on the Tenn-Tom Waterway just south of the Aberdeen Lock and Dam.
Steve Rogers
Staff Writer

The weather has cooperated, for the most part, and barge traffic is beginning to return to normal on The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway except for through traffic trying to get north or south of Aberdeen.

But the Aberdeen closure still is likely a month or more from being opened, although good weather is improving the outlook.

Crews with Mike Hooks Dredging left the Gulf Shores area Thursday headed north and should arrive in Aberdeen as early as the end of this week to start dredging the closed channel just south of the Aberdeen lock.

Heavy rains and flooding at the end of February created unprecedented shoaling, clogging the river there.

All other areas from Paducah, Ky. to Mobile are now open, although some channels remain narrow. A Corps of Engineers dredging barge is working on several of those along the northern part of the Tenn-Tom where it connects with the Tennessee River.

But it could be worse. Last week, weather forecasters predicted as much as 10 inches of rain at the northern end of the waterway during a 10-day period. Much of that initially was predicted for March 12-15. But the only real rain came Thursday and it was not enough to create new flooding.

“They had been forecasting a lot of rain, but we didn’t get it. That rain Thursday didn’t hurt us at all, it wasn’t that big a deal. If we can get through to May now, we should be in good shape,” said Justin Murphree, the Corps’ operations manager for the Tenn-Tom Waterway from north Mississippi south to Demopolis, Ala.

“The dredge will take about 10 days to get here, but that’s better than the two weeks we originally thought. We’ll need every extra day,” Murphree continued.

Murphree and other Corps engineers are in regular contact with barge operators, especially those who go up and down the waterway through Aberdeen. Full passage can’t come soon enough.

“We’re telling them to try to time their shipments with about when the channel will be cleared. I suspect that as that gets closer, we’ll have a good number of boats lined up to go through,” Murphree said.
After river levels fell late last week, barge traffic began to pick back up and has continued to increase.

“It’s getting back to normal for us with materials coming from Mobile to here. The things we need to ship north are still having to wait. It sure will be nice to get that open again,” said Will Sanders, the manager of the Lowndes County Port Authority. “But most of our regular traffic between here and Mobile is back.”

The financial impact on the Waterway and the ports and businesses that depend on it may never be fully known. And it could last beyond when the channel is fully reopened.

“It’s hurting a lot of people. It’s going to effect us as well. Part of our funding depends on tonnage and if the tonnage is down, then our funding will be down at a time when we will need it most. We hope the powers that be understand and put an asterisk by this year,” Murphree noted.