Army Corps of Engineers contemplates tearing out lightly used locks, dams on upper Allegheny
Imagine 160 miles of continuous open water on the Allegheny River from the Kinzua Dam in Warren County to the Natrona dam in Harrison.
It's not just a dream; it's the subject of two studies: The nonprofit American Rivers, headquartered in Washington, D.C., is studying and advocating for the removal of the Allegheny River's upper locks and dams as it has done throughout the country for what it says is decrepit and obsolete water infrastructure.
The Army Corps of Engineers, owner of the locks and dams, also is studying the future of the aging and lesser-used river locks in Armstrong County and in the upper reaches of the Monongahela River.
Details about what could happen to other river facilities such as hydropower dams and drinking water intakes as well as impact on water levels and the floodplain will be available this year when these studies are released.
There are eight locks and dams built in the 1920s and 1930s on the Allegheny from Highland Park to Kinzua that haven't had regular maintenance and are expected to fail eventually. These are not dams controlling flooding but fixed crest dams built to create a consistent water depth for large commercial vessel navigation.
The Kinzua dam, which created the Allegheny Reservoir on the Pennsylvania-New York border, is a flood control dam and is not a candidate for removal in either study.
“At the end of the day with the Allegheny, if we do nothing, there will be a maintenance issue that will shut down the locks,” said Lenna Hawkins, deputy engineer for the Corps' Pittsburgh district.
The Army Corps closed half of those locks to regular boat traffic in the past four years: Lock Nos. 6 through 9 in South Buffalo, West Kittanning, Boggs and Madison townships, respectively.
Federal funding for any lock and dam is determined by how much commercial traffic passes through it.
Unfortunately for the Allegheny River's upper locks, commercial traffic has all but dried up.
For example, the Boggs Township lock recorded 860 transits in 2006 but none in 2016.
In the recent past, the loss of the sand and gravel dredging industry has had profound effects on the number of lockages.
The only shining light has been an agreement between the Corps and a Kittanning nonprofit, the first of its kind nationally, for the nonprofit to raise money in the past several years to pay the Corps to open the Armstrong County locks on summer weekends and holidays for recreational boaters.
What exactly the Army Corps will do with the locks, officials don't know yet.
“We're trying to be proactive,” Hawkins said of a current Corps study on what to do with the lesser-used locks on the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, to be released in July or August.
“If we just let the locks fail, we would just shut them down because we couldn't get funds (to repair them),” Hawkins said.
For example, when Lock and Dam No. 9 in Madison Township, Armstrong County, had a hydraulic pipeline problem in 2006, it was shut down for an entire season because the Corps didn't have the funds to fix it immediately, Hawkins said.
Given the looming maintenance issues, the agency is starting the planning process now with a study exploring a number of options: Stay the course, reinvest or divest, transfer ownership to a government/private group, remove the dams or do something else.
“We don't have enough information to really understand fully the potential of the upper Allegheny River,” Hawkins said. “Doing this report will give us a glimpse of what those potential possibilities are.”
An initial question: who might want to own the locks and dams?
“No one wants them,” said Linda Hemmes, president of the Allegheny River Development Corp., the Kittanning nonprofit that contracts with the Corps to open the upper locks to recreational boaters on weekends in the summer.
“Who in their right mind would take over 95-year-old locks in deplorable condition?” she asked.
There is “no way” a group or a local government could raise enough money to own and maintain the locks, Armstrong County Commissioners Chairman Pat Fabian said.
Hemmes credits the Corps mechanics who keep the locks running as “miracle workers.”
Rather than trying to transfer the locks to someone else, she would like to see the Corps maintain the locks and Congress change the funding formula to include facilities used by recreational boats, which Armstrong County depends on for its tourism.
“It's an enormous industry in Western Pennsylvania, and we can ill afford to kick it to the curb,” Hemmes said.
Remove locks and dams?
The American River organization proposes the removal of the locks and dams from Lock and Dam No. 5 in Schenley to No. 9 in Madison Township.
The Washington, D.C., nonprofit will release the results of its Allegheny River lock removal study first to the Army Corps next month, then to the residents of Armstrong County and community leaders this spring, said Lisa Hollingsworth-Segedy, director for River Restoration for American Rivers.
Dam removal is a trend across the country as more old dams that have outlived their purposes are being removed with dollars provided by a mix of government and nonprofit support.
But the concept is new to many.
“Show me,” Fabian said.
Like other Armstrong County residents, Fabian has many questions: What are the conditions of locks and dams and how much would it cost to upgrade them? How would dam removal affect the shallow areas of the river where recreational boating is challenging?
“My one major concern is, how will taking out these dams impact towns like Ford City and Kittanning?” Fabian said. “How will it affect the water levels for flooding and (drinking water) intakes along the river?”
Hollingsworth-Segedy said those issues will be covered in the study, adding that she understands the concerns.
“It's a resource that is dear to the people there,” she said.
But it's not going to stay that way if the locks and dams fail.
A rough estimate of the cost to remove a lock and dam is about $2 million, compared with tens of millions of dollars to refurbish the same facility, Hollingsworth-Segedy said.
If the Allegheny River dams are removed, water levels will recede in some areas, and that will vary, she said.
The American Rivers study will focus on the geometry of the riverbed so residents will know how the new levels will affect where they live, Hollingsworth-Segedy said.
Recreational boat traffic still would be possible.
“If there will be any barriers to boating on the river, we want to know where they are,” she said.
Hollingsworth-Segedy predicted that a long, free-flowing Allegheny River will boost tourism.
“I think it would be a unique recreational opportunity that you won't be able to find anywhere else,” she said, “making Armstrong County more of a recreational destination than it is now.”
The Corps is exploring the removal of the locks in its current report. But for the agency to seriously consider such an option, it would need to conduct a larger study examining every option from reinvestment to removal of the locks, Hawkins said.
“Removal of facilities costs money, and we would have to look at local economic impacts,” she said. “Maybe there is balance.”
Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or firstname.lastname@example.org.