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LockFest on Allegheny River helps lower barriers for boaters

| Saturday, May 13, 2017, 7:30 p.m.
Michael Swensen | Tribune-Review
Tim Jones, an Army Corps of Engineers equipment mechanic, points to the closing lock and describes how it works to Jeff Berkoben, 60, of New Kensington during a tour of the lock in Harrison on Saturday, May 13, 2017.
Michael Swensen | Tribune-Review
Dean Walker of Harrison walks past the house that belongs to the Lock Master at Lock No. 4 in Harrison. The Army Corps of Engineers invited boaters to learn how to properly pass through an Allegheny River lock on Saturday, May 13, 2017.
Michael Swensen | Tribune-Review
John Dilla, chief of the Army Corps’ locks and dams branch of Corps of Engineers in Pittsburgh, stands at the edge of a boat that is passing through Lock 4 in Harrison on Saturday, May 13, 2017.
Michael Swensen | Tribune-Review
Members of the Army Corps of Engineers drive a boat through Lock 4 on the Allegheny River in Harrison during a tour designed to show boaters how to properly pass through lock on Saturday, May 13, 2017.

Danny and Maria Haynes plan to put their boat on the Beaver River next weekend.

They want to get up to the Point in Pittsburgh this summer to meet friends, but there's something in the way that they've never dealt with — river locks. They've never gone through one.

“It's kind of intimidating,” Maria Haynes said. “We haven't had a reason to do it.”

To get ready, the Ellwood City couple came to Harrison on Saturday, when the Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District held a first-time event that included explaining the process of “locking through.”

“We want to know what we're doing,” Danny Haynes said.

More than 80 people attended the first LockFest at Allegheny River Lock 4.

In addition to learning about safe lockage procedures, attendees received information on safe boating, sharing the river with commercial traffic and the availability of locks on the upper stretches of the river in Armstrong County.

“It was a great turnout for a first-time event,” Army Corps spokeswoman Carol Vernon said.

Allegheny County ranks first in the state for registered boats, with 22,729 in 2016, according to the state Fish & Boat Commission. Bucks County is a distant second at an average of about 15,000.

Those vessels are being joined by a growing number of unpowered craft, such as kayaks. But officials and boaters said many boaters stay in their respective pools, not using the locks to get around the dams that maintain the rivers' navigable depth.

“We've heard that people are afraid to lock through. They don't know how to do it,” said John Dilla, chief of the Army Corps' locks and dams branch. “We want to educate the public on how to do it safely so they're able to utilize more of the river out there. When you go through once, you lose your fear of it and you won't hesitate to do it again.”

After a demonstration with a corps boat going through the lock, Danny and Maria Haynes felt better informed.

“It's not as difficult as I thought it would be,” Maria Haynes said. “It sounds more intimidating than it is. Once you see it, it looks 100 percent easier.”

Dean Walker of Harrison used to put his fishing boat in the river above Lock 4.

“I never locked through with it,” he said. “I never had to.”

Now that he has a pontoon boat docked in Brackenridge, Walker said he plans to use Lock 4 to fish both pools. He came out Saturday to learn how.

“This was a good first step,” he said. “It opens up a whole new area.”

Growing concerns about congestion on the rivers, particularly around Point State Park and at the Allegheny River locks, and conflicts between recreational boaters and commercial traffic were also a driving reason behind the event.

“What we want to do is get ahead of anything that could possibly happen and put anybody in danger,” said Coast Guard Lt. Shawn Simeral of the Marine Safety Unit Pittsburgh. “Recreational boaters and kayakers have the most to lose in those situations.”

Because there isn't one way to define a “near miss,” there are no statistics on how many times those happen on the rivers, Simeral said.

“Look across the Point any given weekend and see how many motorboats are out there,” Dilla said. “It's congested. It's busy. It's people out there enjoying themselves. Sometimes commercial tow operators are scared to drive through because of the potential for an incident to happen.”

Recreational boaters need to know that tow operators have limited visibility from their pilot houses and cannot maneuver or stop quickly, said David Podurgiel, a vessel operations manager with Murray American River Towing.

Podurgiel, who said he's been a captain on the rivers since 1999, notes a full tow of 15 barges carrying 20,000 tons of coal can take almost a mile to stop.

“It gets very stressful,” he said.

There isn't much, if any, commercial traffic past Lock 4. That can make the river more peaceful for recreational boating, but the decline in commercial traffic on the Upper Allegheny led to the closure of Locks 6 through 9 between 2010 and 2012.

This summer will be the third that the Allegheny River Development Corp. will pay the Army Corps to operate the four locks on weekends, holidays and for events. This year, it is also contributing toward partial operation of Lock 5, which had its service cut back because of declining commercial traffic.

Having boaters who are comfortable using the locks is important for the nonprofit group's mission of keeping them open, its president, Linda Hemmes, said.

“Numbers build our strength,” she said. “It's key for us to show those numbers.”

Lock dates for this year start May 26 and run until Oct. 1.

“For us, knowledge equates to better use of the facilities that are available,” Hemmes said.

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-226-4701, or on Twitter @BCRittmeyer.

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