River advocate says locks and dams will be lost if not used

Published 9:54 pm Tuesday, August 6, 2013

It was nearly a year ago when stakeholders along the Alabama River first learned of the U.S. Corps of Engineers plan to restrict recreational traffic through the system’s three locks — at Claiborne, Millers Ferry and R.F. Henry. In an attempt to continue to keep residents informed of the need to utilize the locks, before they are shut down due to lack of lockages, residents are invited to “load the locks” Saturday, Aug. 17 at Millers Ferry Lock and Dam in Millers Ferry, Ala.

Organizer of the event is Minter native, Bobby Sillavan. Sullivan is not affiliated with any river organizations, but is simply a tax-paying resident who said, “We’ve paid for it so we need to keep it open.”

“Coming from Washington, the Corps of Engineers is wanting to shut down our locks,” Sillivan said. “And they say that the main reason is the funding, which of course, everybody is having some funding problems. But these are navigable waterways, and if they shut them down — we’ve lost.”

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Sillivan urged that once the locks are shut down, they will never be opened again.

“One of the reasons they’re considering shutting our river down is because we don’t have enough lockage,” he said. “That’s the thing we’re trying to do is get more lockage. People don’t realize what benefits the locks bring to the area. They have just a tremendous amount of economic impact on the communities like Camden, Selma and Monroeville.”

Sillivan said he is anticipating between 50 and 100 boats to load the locks for the weekend event.

“Use ‘em or lose ‘em,” he said.

Beginning Saturday, Aug. 17 at 8:00 a.m. at Millers Ferry, residents are encouraged to utilize the lock. The event is open to powerboats and paddleboats alike. There is no cost to utilize the locks, and Sillivan said boaters can be on the river all day, locking through both ways as many times as they’d like.

Jerry Sailors, president of the Coosa-Alabama River Improvement Association said he’s looking forward to the event and hopes to see people come out and demonstrate that they’re interested.

“This is just an attempt to make sure the Corps and Alabama state officials are all still aware of the issue,” Sailors said, noting spending the day above or below the lock will help demonstrate that there are a lot of people still interested in the issue. “We have not had the groundswell of support or as many people using the locks as we would hope. I’m not sure if that is something they’re just taking for granted as this point.”

The Corps’ minimum criteria to keep the locks operational — just on weekends and holidays — is 500 lockages annually, a number Sailors said has never been reached by recreational vessels.
“We are probably not going to get anywhere close to what the Corps’ criteria are for minimum number of lockages to keep that thing open for a certain period of time,” he said. “But I don’t think the numbers are that important right now; I think just the awareness of the issue is the most important thing.”

Sailors explained that if there were no access to the locks, it would essentially close the system to any economic development as far as river traffic goes.

“If you were to close Miller’s Ferry, meaning there’s nobody to operate the lock, everything above that is isolated from the gulf. Everything above a closed lock is isolated from the gulf,” he said. “We have always had access to the gulf in some fashion all along this river, and the Corps’ budgetary pressures are causing them to reduce wherever they can, and based upon the numbers that they’ve cited as the basis of their criteria, this system is not productive.”

Sailors said he and others across the state are not interested in seeing the locks close down, but said it will take recreational vessels locking through the locks to validate that — which is why he hopes to see ample support at Saturday’s event.

For those who don’t have their own boat but still wish to participate, Sillivan said, on an as-available basis, one of several participating boat owners will lock families through. For this they will need to make a reservation with Sillivan at (334) 872-3927 or (205) 541 0454 or with Bill Steadham (334) 682-9476. Those making reservations to lock through with another boater will need to bring their own life jackets.