Navigation on the Alabama River

Also see Reconnaissance Report, Alabama River Below Claiborne Lock and Dam, July 1996

Navigation on the Alabama River faces many challenges. Several forces are acting in concert and individually to render the 30-year old channel between the Mobile River and Montgomery susceptible to reductions in the federal funding that keeps the channel open to commercial navigation.

The Alabama River navigation channel is 305 miles long, nine feet deep and 200 feet wide. Authorized by Congress in 1945, the channel was fully open in 1972 when the last of the three locks and dams on the river, the Robert F Henry, was completed. Since then, the Mobile District of the US Army Corps of Engineers has maintained the channel through a combination of management of reservoir flow releases, training works, and dredging. Federal funding to operate and maintain the channel averages around five million dollars annually, with two million allocated to the dredging program alone. Commercial movement on the river gradually increased to its zenith in 1986 when 4.1 million tons of commodities were recorded. After 1986, tonnage began to decline gradually, but took a sharp downturn in 1993 to the point in 1999 when annual tonnage was less than 600,000 tons. Tonnage for 2000 was less than 100,000.

Before using barges on the Alabama River, shippers evaluate three forces that may affect productivity. First, and the most visible, is the nature of the river itself. Throughout its meandering 305-mile journey, sharp turns and narrow passages make navigation a challenge. On the 72-mile reach between Claiborne Dam and the mouth, the channel not only meanders, but is very susceptible to shallow conditions during the seasonal drought period in late summer and early fall. But even in winter and early spring before dredging commences, siltation dropped by receding high waters can reduce channel depths. Mobile District dredges between April and October, but can maintain the nine-foot depth on the average only between 65 and 70 percent of the time. This percentage is referred to as the navigation reliability and is one of the main reasons cited by prospective shippers and operators on the river for not running the Alabama. Shippers need the channel available all year. Those operators who do run year around must "light load," (move less than a full barge load) or use specially designed shallow draft vessels because of the shallow depths in certain parts of the river.

As a result of the navigation reliability, shippers take a close look before locating their business in the Alabama River Basin. This leads to the second force acting upon navigation: the economics of river transportation.

To be competitive, barge transportation must be able to move bulk commodities more cheaply than rail or truck. On the Alabama, in general, the only way barges are the cheaper option in most cases is when the operator has tonnage to move both upriver and down river during the course of a mission, absorbing the costs of a shipment in both directions rather than just one. Shippers who use the barge in one direction only must pay the operator for expenses in both directions. With virtually no industry in the upper part of the Alabama channel using down river barge transportation, those industries seeking to move commodities up stream do so at a more expensive rate because there is no backhaul. On those infrequent occasions when a shipper in Montgomery has a movement down river, most of the time there is no requirement upstream to help offset operator costs. Therefore, shipping originating in the upper part of the system tends to be products that cannot be moved any other way, e.g., outsized steel products such as ramps for large ships.

Still, despite the expense, barge transportation serves to keep shipping rates of other modes of transportation, especially rail, depressed, thus helping shippers get their raw materials or products to markets at the best rate available.

The third force working on Alabama River navigation is environmental. Environmentalists seek to invoke the Endangered Species Act in an effort to save supposedly endangered aquatic species or they advocate returning the river to a "natural flow regime," which, when extended to its logical conclusion, means ultimately removing the dams from the river altogether. Both have the potential of being major obstacles to the continued viability of commercial navigation on the Alabama.

The Mobile River Basin, of which the Alabama River is a major part, is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. Its diversity is a strong magnet for those whose agenda is to protect every endangered species available. The Alabama River is home to several species listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Already listed are four mussel and the Alabama sturgeon found in the navigation channels. (See separate discussion on Alabama sturgeon.)

Some environmentalists are advocating returning the Alabama River to a "natural flow regime." Bill Finch, environmental editor of the Mobile Press-Register, said in a December 21,1998 article that the interruption of natural flows by dams on the Alabama River has contributed to the declining health of the Mobile Rive delta. Finch suggested simulating natural flows by changing reservoir management patterns to release more water during flood season and less water during drought season. This suggestion conflicts with the need for stable water depths for navigation. The "natural flow regime" concept is a nationwide push to remove dams from as many rivers as possible. If the commercial tonnage cannot be maintained to justify the current reservoir release practices in support of navigation, then this push will gain a foothold in the Alabama area.

The Mobile District of the US Army Corps of Engineers is in the midst of a feasibility study to determine federal interest in modifying the current system of training works in the Lower Alabama River to improve the navigation reliability. A Reconnaissance Report published in May 1997 concluded improved training works could possibly provide benefits. The feasibility study should be finished by the end of FY 2002.

CARIA Opinion

The Alabama River is located in one of the most economically deprived sections of the state. It is incumbent on the state to provide every opportunity to create jobs and increase revenue in that area and to enhance industry development potential in the upper parts of the river basin. The navigation channel is just such a tool.

However, the channel can provide that opportunity only if it is maintained as authorized, i.e., a 9-foot deep and 200-foot wide, for its entire length of 305 river miles. Only then can it be represented as reliable to prospective shippers.

On the other hand, the federal government must evaluate the return on its investment in maintaining the channel. Currently, some valuable cargo is being moved, but the tonnage is low. In its proposed FY 2002 budget, the Bush Administration directed 2001 funds be reprogrammed from "lower-priority activities, such as recreational harbors and low commercial-use inland navigation waterway segments" to "port and harbor and inland waterway activities that support significant commercial navigation." As a low-use waterway, the Alabama navigation channel is vulnerable. This approach, however, does not account for the value of the cargo that is being moved nor does it factor in the value of the waterway to the region it serves. Stopping maintenance on the Alabama River will deny an economic tool to the most economically deprived area in Alabama, the Black Belt counties of Clarke, Monroe, Wilcox, Dallas, and Lowndes.

The President again proposed to eliminate funding in the FY 03 budget for maintenance dredging on the Alabama River. The House had reinstated those funds in its proposed Civil Works appropariations bill, but, like almost every other appropiations, that bill was tabled when the 107th Congress adjourned in November. Whether any of the add-ons remain in the Civil Works appropriations bill is uncertain at best.

So what comes first? The chicken or the egg? Bring the tonnage up to justify the cost of maintenance or continue to maintain the channel in order to attract shippers? CARIA thinks we must maintain the channel to keep economic development opportunities open. To do otherwise is to risk the loss of a valuable economic development tool. There are prospective shippers, but we must be able to guarantee them the channel will remain reliable. The only way we can do that is to continue channel maintenance, improve the training works, and ensure appropriate releases from upstream reservoirs.