James McKinnie, left, with the Army Corps of Engineers, and Brett Bagwell with Golding Barge Line look over the maps of the Arkansas River and its locks and dams during a meeting to discuss proposed guidelines at the Delta Rivers Nature Center Thursday. (Special to The Commercial/William Harvey)
Proposals to close locks periodically and restrict boaters on the McClellan-Kerr Navigation System are part of a nationwide effort to trim costs and extend the life of machinery, officials said Thursday in Pine Bluff.
Meanwhile, an area fisherman says closing the locks will pose limits on anglers, especially during competitions.
Representatives of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Little Rock District were in Pine Bluff Thursday to answer questions and provide information about possibly closing the locks for four hours a day and restricting recreational boaters to two or three periods of lock passage per day.
Meeting at the Delta Rivers Nature Center in Regional Park, John Balgavy, Chief of the Operations Division of the Little Rock District, said that the proposals are part of an effort to trim costs when budgets are declining.
“The locks throughout the country are ranked by six levels of service,” Balgavy said. “From level one locks that run 24 hours a day and have more than 1,000 commercial lockages [lock transits] per year down to level six locks that are by appointment only. Level two locks are considered reduced service and run two shifts per day with between 500 and 1,000 commercial lockages per year.”
Balgavy said that the Corps began four hour stoppages Oct. 1 at the James W. Trimble Lock at Fort Smith and the Ozark-Jeta Taylor Lock at Ozark which have between 800 and 900 lockages per year as well as three locks on the McClellan-Kerr in Oklahoma.
“We are exploring the idea of instituting the four hour stoppages at the rest of the locks on the McClellan-Kerr System,” Balgavy said. “This will lessen the wear and tear on the lock mechanisms and allow us to perform maintenance on a more frequent basis. We must try to extend the life of the locks on a limited budget.”
Meanwhile, Roby Jones, a tournament angler from Pine Bluff, attended the meeting to make sure his voice was heard.
“One of the concerns that those of us who fish the river competitively have is about being able to lock through during a tournament,” Jones said. “The winner of the Arkansas Big Bass Bonanza in Little Rock this year came down two locks to this area to do his fishing and then went back up two locks for the weigh in. If they shut us out of the locks that kind of competition can’t happen. It will drastically limit the area we can fish and makes the competition more restrictive.”
Jones said that anglers are upset because the locks have been completely open to them for such a long time.
“Recreational anglers are a huge part of the population in Arkansas,” Jones said. “If the Corps needs something we will support them but at the same time we don’t want to be shut out completely. It is an issue of access. We don’t want to be shut out of what we love.”
“Now we are smart enough to realize that there has to be some give and take between the needs of the Corps and our needs,” Jones said. “We just don’t want to be left out.”
Balgavy said that another potential change on the McClellan-Kerr is the limiting of recreational watercraft lock passages to two or three set one hour lock windows per day.
“One thing that we have already begun to do for recreational boaters locking through is open and close only one of the two lock gates for these small boats,” Balgavy said. “It is so obvious that we can’t believe nobody thought to do this before.”
“The Inland Marine Transport System, which is an arm of the Corps of Engineers, conducted a usage study of the McClellan-Kerr System and its locks,” Balgavy said. “Through the study, two locks in Arkansas were designated as high recreational usage, meaning that more than 60 lockages per month were recorded. The two locks are the Murray Lock and Dam and the Terry Lock and Dam in the Little Rock area.”
Balgavy said that limiting lockages means reducing the number of lock swings and therefore lowering the wear and tear on equipment.
Bob Purvis, the Vice Chair of Arkansas River Connection, said that the Corps is so far doing everything it can to find the best solution to what can at times be competing interests.
“If we’re talking about any kind of restrictions to recreational boaters then we are at loggerheads with them but the Corps has been very responsive to our concerns and have been very customer friendly,” Purvis said. “The big players here are the commercial boating interests. When it comes down to recreational boating versus commercial tow traffic the business end will win every time. We just have to find areas of cooperation.”
The Corps also held public meetings in Little Rock, Russellville, and Ozark earlier this month.