I spent this week touring some locks and dams in the Midwestern United States. It's easy to see why the American Society of Civil Engineers has given our dams a D (or Poor) in their last internal waterway infrastructure assessment.
The United States Army Corp of Engineers is scrambling all over the nation to hold our inland waterways together. The ASCE estimates a necessary $12.5-billion investment to get our dams up to an A-rating.
The first project I visited was Wolf Creek Dam, which creates the Cumberland lake. The ASCE has labeled Wolf Creek a High Hazard.
The ongoing rehabilitation operation at Wolf Creek is purported to have a 7:1 payoff just by preventing possible downstream damages. That's not including benefits to the upstream community which makes most of its living from Cumberland lake, which Wolf Creek creates.
My next stop was Olmsted, where the USACE is laying giant sill shells on the Ohio River. The Olmsted dam is composed of wickets and tainter gates and will relieve the travel loads on locks 52 and 53, which were built in 1929.
More tonnage passes this point on the Ohio River than any other place in America’s inland navigation system. In 2008 the passage breakdown looked like this:
Lockmaster, Randy Robertson at lock 52 showed me the steam-powered barge and crane he's using to keep their wicket dam cobbled together—so he can buy time for the completion of Olmsted.
The wooden wickets are each made of the heart of a White Oak tree. Here's one of the old wickets they replaced:
"It'll be a good feeling watching them dynamite this old thing." Robertson said, as we stood atop piers gazing into the roaring Bear Traps (Discharge Gates) that are used to control the water levels upstream of lock 52. We crossed one of these Bear Traps on a pulley-operated seat that dangles above the river. Two of the 'traps' were open to lower the downstream water levels due to heavy rain four days ago in Pittsburgh. According to Robertson, everything that happens up and down the river has to be considered when monitoring the dam. He says it takes a lot of people a lot of thinking to predict and set the water levels up and down the river.
Two days after my visit to 52 as I write this, I'm watching the world's 10 biggest strand jacks working together atop the world's biggest catamaran-mounted Gantry Crane to lift the world's biggest concrete sill shell and move it into position, where it will be part of one of the world's busiest locks and dams.
Look for some upcoming stories and videos in ENR on both these projects. Until then, Olmsted will keep progressing day and night. The night shift looks like this: