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Locks and Dams Have $1 Billion in Repair Backlog

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The Mississippi River locks and dams are part of an aging infrastructure and starting to crumble. But there isn’t enough funding for all the projects they need to do.
Chief of Operations with the Army Corps of Engineers Michael Cox says, “We have been investing in the high priority, critical maintenance needs more than we have in the past.”
At Lock and Dam 15, the Army Corps of Engineers do maintenance by emptying out the pool of the lock.
However, the equipment they were using was so old, it was condemned.
Now a contractor is installing bulkheads so they can start up maintenance again, “There’s one on each side of the chamber, it allows us to set bulkheads so that we can put up a dam using those recesses in the bulkheads and then pump the water out.
Cox points to one side already with bulkheads, “[The contractor] completed this, and that’s what he’s doing on the other side here, in addition to that, he’s also installing new mitigate anchorages.”
Those are the hinges to the gates of the lock and built into the concrete.
Cox says, “That’s original equipment, the steel degrades, the concrete degrades and it becomes a much higher risk of reliability.”
To fix it, the contractor has to seal off the area and cut the stone.
Construction Representative with the Army Corps of Engineers Pete Corken says, “Then the next step is, of course, the removal, the placement of rebar tie backs to support the new structures. Then you set in the structures themselves.”
Construction Representative Pete Corken says one of the hardest things about the job is discovering problems in the heart of the concrete.
“You never know what you’re going to get into when you start opening up 80 year old concrete.” He says before pointing out a hole where workers are cutting into the lock, “See that fracture right there, the crack in the concrete? That gives you an idea of what’s going on inside.”
Bulkhead repairs can take 90 to 120 days. Fortunately, Lock and Dam 15 has two locks. So it’s still in operation.
Corken says, “A lot of this stuff was built or designed with only a 50 year lifespan.”
This lock and dam is almost 80 years old now.
Going further down the lock, on the side already repaired, Cox points out a wall, “Those barges are faced up along what we call the long wall or the guide wall. That’s where we have some movement, and we actually have a hole in that wall in the lower end.”
For three years that wall had been slowly degrading. One day, cracks were found, the next day, those cracks had doubled in size. A crew was mobilized and started to demo.
Cox says that would have been disastrous, “If the worst part fell in, it would drag in other portions of it.”
With the other side under repair, that could have stopped all traffic through the lock and dam.
Cox says, “It was a very good interim risk reduction measure until we get permanent repairs done. The very lower part of the wall we left in place to give pilots a very good view of where the end of the wall is and where the hole is.”
They sent a notice to tow operators, who now have to angle out of the lock to keep a safe distance.
Cox says fixing the hole will take money, “So we’re talking about removing 12 monoliths worth of wall and rebuilding it back up safely. It will cost about $15 million.”
Right now, there’s no money in the budget for that repair.
Cox says budgeting repairs for locks and dams are a small price to pay when you look at how much they save, ”It provides a transportation savings of $1 billion just for the upper Mississippi river system alone.
Across the whole nation, it’s more like $7 billion of transportation savings for the nation.”
But he is proud of what they have done, “Our contractors that you’ve seen here today and our maintenance crews that respond to emergencies like this and do preventative maintenance. They do an outstanding job of keeping the system functioning relatively reliably with the limited resources that we have.”
To combat a lack of funds, they started a national asset management program to identify infrastructure needs and how much that costs, which has helped, in six years, they’ve gotten an additional 150 million dollars specifically for infrastructure maintenance. That’s more than a year’s worth of operation and maintenance budget for their district.
Cox says that’s not as much as it seems, “$150 million may sound like a lot, but the Mississippi Valley Division, which is six districts from St. Paul down to New Orleans, we have over $1 billion in known deferred maintenance. A backlog of maintenance. Our critical maintenance needs that we don’t have funding for.”