Rollin' on the River

River's aging system, future on TDOT agenda


(Reprinted from the Knoxville News Sentinel, August 22, 2004)

Long before TVA built its series of dams and locks, trappers, American Indians and pioneers used the Tennessee River for transporting goods.

"The river system was navigable before we built the dams," said Tim Jones, general manager of Burkhart Enterprises Inc., which oversees transportation of products from the Forks of the River Industrial Park by barge, rail and trucks. "The riverboats went all the way to Sevierville before the dam system."

But that early river system left travelers at the whim of swift currents and rocky shoals, flooding and droughts.

When TVA was founded in 1933, one of the charges from Congress was to manage the river with a navigation channel. The series of locks and dams was completed by 1945, setting the stage for thriving river traffic and reducing the hazards inherent in the river system.

Today, a challenge to the navigability of the Tennessee River above Chattanooga - up to Knoxville and beyond - is under way in Congress, which must decide whether to spend more than $300 million to rebuild the Chickamauga Lock.

And the Tennessee Department of Transportation has undertaken a study of the state's transportation resources that could set the stage for how rivers are managed and promoted for decades to come.

Managing the waterways "The first thing TVA has the responsibility for is improving the navigability of the Tennessee River," said Ted Nelson, TVA manager of navigation. "We have 650 miles from Paducah, Ky., to Knoxville."

On those 650 miles, TVA has nine main locks on the Tennessee River that make it possible for commercial and recreational boats to go from reservoir to reservoir, putting the water to work in the Tennessee Valley. About 150 private-use terminals operate along the river.

In addition to the 650 miles, TVA oversees another 150 miles of navigable waterways on the Clinch and Little Tennessee rivers in East Tennessee and the Hiawassee River in North Carolina.

TVA owns the locks and dams, but the locks are operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Paul Booth, a Chattanooga contractor with the Tennessee Department of Transportation, is helping develop a transportation study to "provide TDOT with a guide for where they ought to be 25 years from now, what they need to plan for in 25 years to handle freight and passenger traffic."

His part of the study, which will encompass all forms of transportation, is looking at the waterways in Tennessee. Booth notes that Tennessee has as many miles of waterway as it does interstate highway, and he believes the waterways could be better utilized.

For example, he says Knoxville, Chattanooga and Nashville have not capitalized on their locations on the river, while Memphis has developed a thriving port transporting grain and petroleum products.

"It's underdeveloped and underutilized," Booth said of the river system.

Booth's report is due in 2005 and may recommend that the state become more involved in navigation, including adding a commission at the cabinet level to oversee the function and even market navigation to businesses.

"We have between 45 million and 50 million tons of commercial traffic moving on the Tennessee River on an annual basis," Nelson said. That's down from a peak 52 million tons in 1999, which Nelson attributes to the downturn in the economy.

TVA figures the Tennessee Valley region saves $450 million a year by transporting goods by barge. The savings is calculated by comparing the costs of rail and trucking transportation to barge transportation.

Nelson and others familiar with barge traffic say it's instrumental to the East Tennessee economy.

"The capability of having barge access to our economy is very important," said Doug Lawyer, director of economic development for the Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership. "We continue to see companies looking in our region that need access to barge facilities or barge terminals. We see raw materials come in by barge.

"I've heard Knoxville is the farthest inland port in the United States. You can get here to the Gulf (of Mexico) and back."

Andrew Riester, vice president of the Waterways Council, a nonprofit organization in Arlington, Va., that promotes the nation's waterways infrastructure, says barge traffic is efficient and less harmful to the environment than other modes of transportation because it uses less fuel.

"Because of its natural fuel efficiency, about 16 percent of the cargo moved in the country is moved by water, but it costs only 2 percent of transportation spending," Riester said. "Barges will typically move low value, high volume commodities. Coal, grain, cement - those are the building blocks of the economy. Without asphalt moving at affordable prices, it's going to cost more to build roads."

At Burkhart Enterprises, which operates a terminal at the confluence of the Holston and French Broad rivers where the Tennessee River begins, the company unloads about 350 barges a year for transport by truck and rail.

"The river system is part of the infrastructure of our country," Jones said. "For this area it's very important. If it came by any other mode, the total cost of it would be more and that cost would be passed on to me and you and everybody else who pays for these services."

Channels of commerce TVA's reservoir operations help to maintain a steady water level that guarantees year-round passage for vessels requiring a 9-foot draft, that is, the minimum depth of water required for barges and commercial traffic.

A typical barge is 195 feet long and 35 feet wide and can carry 1,500 tons. That's equal to 15 rail cars and 60 trucks.

The lock works like an elevator, raising or lowering barges from one water level to another. On the average, it takes about 45 minutes for a barge to go through a lock.

The most common commodity being moved on the Tennessee River is coal. It is shipped into the river system from the Big Horn River basin in South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado and from coal mines in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Much of the coal goes to TVA's coal-fired plants; the rest goes to private industry.

Coal and some coke make up 40 percent of the product shipped by barge on the Tennessee River.

The second biggest commodity is stone, sand and gravel, at 25 percent. It's one of the few products exported out of the Tennessee Valley because of the limestone quarries in East Tennessee and the huge amounts of sand dredged from the river bottom.

The third largest commodity is grain, at 10 percent, a category that includes corn, soybean and oats.

The remainder of products transported on the Tennessee River includes chemicals, petroleum products, iron and steel products.

Although the locks were constructed for commercial traffic, with some 170 terminals along the Tennessee River, another primary benefit is recreation.

"We move about 20,000 recreational craft through there a year," Nelson said.

Since 1988, boat manufacturing operations and dealerships have increased by about 16 percent in counties adjacent to the river, according to a TVA report. The number of marinas in those counties has doubled during this period, and more than 4,000 people are employed in boating-related industries, pumping about $25 million into the Tennessee Valley economy each year.

The type of goods transported into Knoxville varies from the primary products moved along the Tennessee River as a whole.

The primary No. 1 product for Knoxville is asphalt at about 50 percent of the traffic or 250,000 tons a year. It is followed by salt at 20 percent of the traffic or 100,000 tons. The remainder of the Knoxville traffic is coke and steel.

"Knoxville can't live without its road projects, so we feed those road projects," Nelson said, explaining the transportation of asphalt.

Locks at TVA's Nickajack and Pickwick reservoirs in Tennessee, Guntersville, Wheeler and Wilson reservoirs in Alabama, and Kentucky reservoir are the largest and may move more than one barge at a time. The locks at Chickamauga, Watts Bar and Fort Loudoun are smaller and may move only one barge at a time.

TVA has restricted access to its locks since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Previously members of the public could go freely to areas surrounding the locks to view the operation. Now those areas are closed to the public unless a group arranges a visit for educational purposes.

TVA is the nation's largest public utility, serving 8.3 million customers in Tennessee and parts of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia.