Chickamauga lock budget cuts could be trouble for Riverbend Festival boaters

Chickamauga lock budget cuts could be trouble for Riverbend Festival boaters

June 6th, 2013 by Dave Flessner in Local Regional News

Dave Petty, close, and Andrew Akridge paddle into Chickamauga Lock in this file photo. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says it has no money to pay overtime, so boaters who miss the 3 a.m. closure won't be able to go through the lock until lit reopens at 7 a.m.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

LOCK HOURS CHANGED

The Army Corps of Engineers in January restricted hours of operation at these locks on the Tennessee River:

* Chickamauga: Closed from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m.

* Nickajack: Closed from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m.

* Guntersville: Closed from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m.

Thousands of spectators enjoy the Riverbend Festival from boats on the Tennessee River, but some of them may have trouble getting home this year if they stay too long after the show.

The Army Corps of Engineers said this week it is eliminating overtime for its staff in response to the federal sequester.

So boaters trying to return to Chickamauga Lake from Ross's Landing will face a curfew: Those who aren't through the Chickamauga lock before 3 a.m. will have to wait four hours for the lock to reopen.

The impact could hit hard on the final night, when nearly 200 boats are expected on the Tennessee River to view the fireworks show.

"It can get pretty crazy with so many boats trying to lock through after the festival," said riverboat captain Peter Hosemann, of Hosemann Marine Services.

Scott Manning is manager of the Marine Max, which operates the docks at the festival site. He urged boaters "to take their time and be safe."

"We're hoping that at least on the fireworks night, Chickamauga lock might stay open a bit later," Manning said.

Manning and Riverbend Executive Director Chip Baker have appealed to the Corps and TVA to keep the lock open beyond 3 a.m. after the fireworks show.

"I think having the boats there at Riverbend adds to the whole atmosphere and makes our festival special," Baker said. "We've reached out to the corps and we're waiting to hear back from them."But a corps notice to the barge industry issued Monday said that "No lockage of a vessel can begin if completion of the lockage will extend beyond the normal hours of operation."

Corps spokesman Lee Roberts said the only exceptions will be "for emergencies and critical activities." In fiscal 2012, the Nashville district of the corps spent $932,000 on overtime for lock operations.

Barge operators in Chattanooga have already been hurt by more than eight weeks of lock closures from heavy rains and high water.

"It's been a tough year already and I worry that these changes are going to hurt commerce on the river even more," said barge operator Pete Serodino, president of Serodino Inc. "These changes could double our costs in some cases because it is going to make going through these locks take that much longer."

Cline Jones, executive director of the Tennessee River Valley Association, said even before the sequester, the corps' budget for operations has been flat for several years despite rising maintenance costs.

"The corps is having to make some very difficult choices and unfortunately these cuts could hurt the barge industry and that hurts everyone," Jones said.

"Barges operate 24-7 and when they get to a lock in the middle of the night and they have to just sit there and wait for the corps to reopen the lock, that costs most barge operations $400 an hour."

The corps is making most of its cuts on less-traveled portions of America's inland waterways, which includes the upper portion of the Tennessee River.

"But when you start cutting off the branches, you eventually also kill the tree," Jones said.

Contact staff writer Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.