Waterway closings’ financial impact mounting

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

While state and federal agencies continue to assess the damage from last week’s storms and flooding, the impact on the region’s economy will continue for weeks.

The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway is closed in Kentucky, Tishomingo County in Mississippi and Coffeeville in Alabama. While those closures likely will be alleviated by this weekend or early next week, a bigger issue remains just south of the Aberdeen Lock and Dam.

And it will take six to eight weeks for a short-term fix as the Corps of Engineers brings in a dredging crew to remove tens of thousands of cubic yards of silt that has created a massive sandbar that has the river so shallow it’s only about knee deep in spots.

Long-term fixes will take four or five years, according to the Corps chief operations engineer.

“I am telling the legislators the Corps will need supplemental funding to get everything back to normal and they need it ASAP,” said Mitch Mays, director of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority, who is in Washington pushing Corps funding with Congress.

His trip was planned well in advance of last week’s flooding but couldn’t have come at a better time.

The Corps’ in-house rig is clearing a 200-foot long sandbar at mile marker 410 in southern Tishomingo County.

That should be finished this weekend. Kentucky Lock on the Tennessee River near where it meets the Ohio also should be cleared by this weekend, as will a clog at Coffeeville, Ala.

According to Tenn-Tom Waterway Corps Operations Manager Justin Murphree, the dredging rig should be in place at Aberdeen in three weeks. It’ll take a least three weeks to dredge out 150,000 cubic yards of silt and debris to open a one-lane barge channel. The sandbar that has closed the river is made up of an estimated 400,000 cubic yards that will take much longer to remove.

That material will be dumped in an existing spoil site on the last bank of the river just south of the Highway 45 bridge south of Aberdeen. A crew already is shoring up the spoil site’s levee and clearing space.

The area in question is in a long straightaway that was a channel dug as part of the waterway. That leaves room for barges and pleasure boats to communicate through the one-lane area. Barges also can tie up at the Tom Soya port on the southern edge of Aberdeen, Murphree said.

Once the channel is opened, Murphree said it will take as many as five more years of regular dredging to remove other debris and silt that has accumulated in front of the spillway and will gradually wash out into the channel.

The current blockage also comes at a time when pleasure boaters — known as Loopers because of they route they take from the Northeast to the Gulf Coast for the winter and then back to northern areas — are starting to head back north. That traffic could be delayed or even detoured, having an impact on marinas and related businesses on the waterway.

Murphy and veteran river watchers say the shoaling that has blocked the river has never happened before in the 35 years since the waterway opened. And they don’t see this episode as a sign of a long-range problem or channel issue.

“This is a once in a generation type thing. Even the carriers say they’ve never seen this in 44 years of being on the rivers,” Mays said.

“I don’t think there is a bigger concern. Years ago one of my children did a paper on the waterway about how cutting all the timber along it in the 1980s and 1990s was going to result in a lot of siltation. I don’t know if that is it. I think a lot of things have come together at once. You have to remember, we’ve been above average in rain since October,” noted Perry Lucas, who manages to Tom Soya operation at the Lucas Clay County Port.

“I think this is coming from several factors. Most of the time when we have flooding up at Town Creek and those areas around Tupelo, the debris and everything hangs up at mile marker 366 where the old Tombigbee comes in to the Waterway up near Amory,” explained Murphree.

“This time, the flows were so high, it kept going past there and hung up at Aberdeen. And once it started hanging up, it just caught everything else,” he continued.

“I don’t think it’s something that will happen more than every 30 or 35 years. It’s not a permanent flow change.”

Combined, the financial impact on ports and businesses are mounting.

“It’s impacted a good bit, it’s not good for us, but I can’t really quantify it right now,” Lucas said of his operation.

The Lucas port has grain that’s waiting to be shipped north to the Tennessee River but won’t be able to get there for weeks. Lucas said he’s spoken with the buyers who are cooperating.

At the same time, crushed stone comes to Aberdeen from Kentucky via the waterway. It, too, will have to wait unless the markets decide to send it down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and over to Mobile and back up since the Coffeeville snag in South Alabama is expected to be cleared in a few days.

“We’re working with everyone we can to find solutions where we can. It’s not good, but we’ll get past it,” Lucas said.

Will Sanders, director of the Lowndes County Port, agreed.

Scrap iron for Steel Dynamics has been delayed getting up the river from Mobile by high waters and Coffeeville being blocked. That could open next week.

Sanders suffers the same crushed stone issue as Lucas.

Some steel coils from Steel Dynamics are stuck waiting mostly to go south, but Sanders fears the port has lost some northbound tonnage. That’s also true for wooden utility poles that were being shipped upriver to Louisville, Ky.

“They’ve gone back to using trucks and will have to do that until we can get going north again,” Sanders stated.

“There’s going to be a big reduction in tonnage because of this. And part of the federal money we get is based on tonnage. That’s one of the things Mitch is talking to them about. This has long-range implications,” added Agnes Zaiontz, the business manager for the Tenn-Tom Waterway Development Authority.

Meanwhile, state and local officials continue to assess flood damage to roads, bridges, homes and businesses in areas not only along the river and its tributaries but also creeks and streams in the eastern part of the county that flooded and caused damage.

Clay County Emergency Management Director Torrey Williams said late Tuesday he hopes to have preliminary dollar estimates and a number of roads and properties as early as today. Then the state and federal agencies still must determine the extent of any emergency declaration that could funnel low-interest loans and grants and other assistance back to the area.