US Army Corps of Engineers
Louisville District Website

Corps reopens river after emergency closure, hopes for best, prepares for worst

Published Oct. 19, 2016
The steam work boat lifts the smaller wickets near the bear trap section of the dam to retain pool depth for navigation at Locks and Dam 52 on the Ohio River at Brookport, Illinois.

The steam work boat lifts the smaller wickets near the bear trap section of the dam to retain pool depth for navigation at Locks and Dam 52 on the Ohio River at Brookport, Illinois.

Staff at Locks and Dam 52 on the lower Ohio River work to raise a wicket on the 1920s-era dam.

Staff at Locks and Dam 52 on the lower Ohio River work to raise a wicket on the 1920s-era dam.

In a proactive move to deter another river closure caused by aging infrastructure, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Louisville District, contractors installed anchors in the lower Ohio River bed at Locks and Dam 52, Brookport, Illinois, to assist the Corps workboat when raising the wicket dam during less-than-favorable conditions.

The Corps workboat is able to attach to the anchors to steady the vessel and cross gaps from missing wickets when raising the 1920s dam, preventing a reprise of the situation in September when three missing wickets caused navigation to cease. 

The three-wicket hole had prevented the Corps workboat from crossing the dam to continue raising wickets—increasing safety concerns on already hazardous work. The new anchor system will help the workboat straddle this formerly unfordable stretch safely and to keep the river open to navigation. 

“Every day is a challenge here; new problems arise just as we fix a previous problem,” Luther Helland, Locks and Dam 52 lockmaster, said. “Last year we were dealing with a similar situation with holes in the dam. With Mother Nature working with us, we had an opportunity to do three open water dives at three different times. This year we haven’t been so lucky to have that opportunity to do open water diving due to either it’s too wet or too dry.”

The uncooperative river and weather continue to delay the repair of the missing wickets. Until the river levels rise to allow the dam to be lowered and divers to make repairs, the Corps will continue to keep the dam up to sustain the pool for navigation.

“Locks and Dam 52 is a remnant of the 1920s river system, and the 1200-foot lock, built in the 1970s, was a temporary chamber to last for up to 15 years. It is well past its life expectation,” Col. Christopher Beck, commander, Louisville District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said. “We continue Olmsted Locks and Dam construction which is planned to be in operation in 2018. Then, Locks and Dams 52 and 53 can be removed from operation.”

The Corps closed the locks at 52 on Sept. 14 around 5 a.m. The dam lost three wickets in August when their base connections failed and attempts to raise remaining wickets were unsuccessful because of river and dam conditions. 

“Although the district was monitoring and developing corrective actions to maintain the required nine-foot navigation channel, with falling river forecasts, this became a critical issue that caused loss of pool,” Chuck Oliver, Louisville District emergency operations chief, said. “Loss of pool impacted navigation on the Ohio, Tennessee, and Cumberland rivers and could have had impacts to water intakes, along with other commercial interests and stake holders in the area.”


To minimize impacts, the Corps chose to lower the pool level by reducing releases from Smithland Locks and Dam—approximately 25 miles upstream. This action offered lower river velocities for Corps workers to raise additional wicket gates to sustain pool. An alternate choice—to let nature take its course—could have caused impacts to navigation for weeks. The gamble paid off.

The economic impacts to the navigation industry associated with a Locks and Dam 52 closure are significant. According to a Corps Olmsted Locks and Dam economic analysis where Locks and Dam 52 is closed for three to seven days, the closure impacts would likely be in the ballpark of $800,000 to $2.3 million. 

“Our goal was to minimize impacts to the navigation industry and communities,” Waylon Humphrey, chief, Louisville District Corps locks and dams, said. “We held daily conference calls to update industry and to hear their suggestions on locking plans prior to closing the locks.”

The locks re-opened in around 15 hours—much sooner than the anticipated 96 hours. The first commercial tow locked through at Sept. 14 at 8:35 p.m. 

“Thanks to the U.S. Coast Guard, river industry, the Kentucky emergency operations center, and Nashville District Corps of Engineers for their support during this emergency shutdown of the Locks and Dam 52 pool,” Beck said. “I also want to thank the Louisville District employees who raised the wickets—difficult and hazardous work—to reopen the river to commercial navigation.”

Helland agreed and emphasized the importance of the project’s home team.

“The crew, which has done an excellent job, has devoted an immense amount of time and pride to keep this facility operating and moving commodities,” Helland said.