The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Mobile District and several Corps partners are working around the clock to repair the breach in the Demopolis Lock in Demopolis, Alabama, Jan. 16, 2024.
A diverse team composed of members from Mobile District’s Operations, Engineering, Contracting, and Project Management Divisions have come together to develop a solution to repair the breach.
The team is augmented with subject matter experts from the Engineering Research and Development Center (ERDC), the Inland Navigation Design Center (INDC), other Corps Districts such as Huntington, Jacksonville, and Rock Island, the Mobile District’s Operations and Maintenance contractors, and other industry experts.
This collaboration of multiple groups is significant in promptly finding and validating a constructible, implementable, and successful repair.
Stephen Beams, Chief of the Mobile District’s Technical Support Branch, said that although the actual cause of the breach is still unknown, what occurred has made the lock inoperable until repairs are made.
“At 0600 on Jan. 16, the lock at Demopolis was in the downstream configuration (upper gates closed and lower gates open),” Beams said. “The lock operator heard a loud boom and felt the lock building shake. The operator went out to inspect, and a large portion of the concrete upper sill had fallen away, allowing water to flow under the upper gates. This created an uncontrolled flow, preventing the closing of the lower gates and rendering the lock inoperable. The upper sill must be repaired to return the lock to service and control the water flow to maintain the water level in the upstream pool, Demopolis Lake.”
So far, with the help of waterway user fleets and the Tennessee Valley Authority fleet, the breach’s uncontrollable release of water aspect has been solved.
“To date, we have successfully regained control of the chamber and stopped the uncontrollable release of water through the failed sill,” Beams said. “The design team is fervently working on a solution to repair the upper sill and have spent long days and the past weekend developing a fix.”
Mother Nature is one problem the District faces in repairing the Demopolis Lock. The later winter and early spring are the high-water periods for the Black Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway. They are considered the flood season in the Demopolis area of Alabama.
Anthony Perkins, Project Manager for the Black Warrior-Tombigbee project, said the timing of the breach couldn’t have been worse.
“For all of the times for a breach to happen, this is perhaps the worst time of year in regard to weather, high water and flooding,” Perkins said. “We have the best engineers in Water Management that give us reliable forecasts. However, we have little control over the weather.”
Chief of Water Management James Hathorn said his team has worked hard to ensure repair crews have the most accurate and up-to-date information. They have also installed a time-lapse camera to cover the repair work from beginning to end.
“Water Management is a member of the Tiger Team selected to develop and innovate lock reopening solution,” Hathorn said. “We are coordinating Demopolis Lock and Dam upstream and downstream water level forecast with the Southeast River Forecast Center with daily updates to the response and design teams. This is critical in the timing of mobilizing equipment and identifying the window to complete certain tasks. We are examining the hydrologic data to determine the probability of water flow quantities and levels.”
Although there is no definitive time for the Demopolis Lock to open, the District is shooting for May for the lock to be fully repaired and fully operable.
“The team is still in the design process, and a detailed timeline and schedule are forthcoming, but initial estimates are to have the lock open sometime in May,” Beams said. “This estimate is likely to change as the design team matures its solution. Another issue is this time of year and the high probability of seasonal high-water levels on the river that can affect the repair work.”