The federal government spent more than $100 million to build and maintain locks on the Chattahoochee River to handle fleets of commercial barges ferrying supplies back and forth, and millions more to deepen the river system for the boats.
But the flotillas of inland vessels floating to Columbus never materialized, while those that did ply the river caused tension with some metro Atlanta politicians and complicated Georgia’s fight with its neighbors over water rights.
Now, the prospect of barges powering upstream into Georgia’s river towns could be dashed for good.
In a money-saving move, the Army Corps of Engineers plans this month to stop manning the decades-old network of locks built south of Columbus to lift or lower the big boats so they can continue along the river. The locks will operate on an appointment-only basis.
Disruption of commerce won’t be an immediate problem: The locks haven’t seen a commercial vessel pass through in three years. Columbus hasn’t handled a barge since 2000.
Still, the move has unsettled some in this west Georgia city. River traffic was once central to Columbus, which became a booming port handling steamboats laden with cotton after its founding in 1828. There was even talk of extending the busy shipping channel to Atlanta.
With the locks’ closure, residents talk solemnly about their city becoming “landlocked,” with no water route to the Gulf of Mexico, about 250 miles downstream. They say the Corps’ decision dashes any chance of reviving the once-bustling 14-acre port in Columbus, as well as the city’s hope of building a giant marina for recreational boats.
“They spent a lot of money on those locks just to close them. It’s ridiculous,” Columbus City Councilman Red McDaniel said. “I know it costs a lot of money to keep them open, but they should have thought of that when they built them.”
U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, who represents the district, is urging the Corps to reconsider.
“What we’ve dreaded over the years has now come to pass,” he said. Commercial traffic along the waterway is already on life support, he said. “Now it’s almost to the point where somebody is pulling the plug.”
Since the 1800s, barges have had a link to ports in Georgia and Alabama through Florida’s Apalachicola Bay, where they can take a Flint River fork to Bainbridge or continue north on the Chattahoochee to Columbus. Even as the nation’s network of rails and roads improved after World War II, Congress adopted a law requiring the Corps to maintain a 9-foot-deep channel in the river system to float commercial vessels to Georgia’s inland ports.
In the 1950s and 1960s, federal engineers built five major dams along the Chattahoochee, installing locks at three. The river was straightened and dredged in places to clear the way for barges in what Congress envisioned as a dependable channel for minerals and farm products.
Yet critics said the costs outweighed the benefit. Watchdog groups said it cost as much as $20 million a year to maintain the channels, a frequent target of environmental advocates and fiscal analysts.
The commercial route was also a flashpoint among Atlanta politicians, who long complained that the water flow needed to keep the shipping route open strained Lake Lanier, Atlanta’s main drinking water source. Some critics argued that metro Atlanta’s water shouldn’t be sent downstream to benefit a few barges.
Commercial traffic on the Chattahoochee never came close to meeting the 1.8 million tons of commercial activity the Corps once predicted for the route. It peaked at 1.2 million tons of traffic in 1985. Fertilizer and agricultural products, along with some chemicals and raw materials, made up the bulk.
Shipping traffic steadily declined to virtually nothing by 2006. By then, much of the traffic that moved along the river was sand and gravel dredged from the system. Many companies that once shipped through Columbus now use alternate ports or rely more on rail or trucking.
The Columbus port has become a transfer station for jet fuel, turpentine and ethanol being moved to and from rail lines and trucks, ports spokesman Robert Morris said.
Columbus boosters blame the Corps for failing to adequately maintain the shipping lane, contending it’s been more than a decade since the route was properly dredged. They also cite the refusal of Florida environmental officials to allow the dredging of their roughly 80-mile stretch of the system.
“Many manufactuers and industry folk shied away from it because of the inconsistency of the water flow down the river,” Bishop said.
Industry groups say it’s cost Columbus jobs amid a troubled economy. Firms ranging from Alabama mineral companies to a Georgia asphalt manufacturer would be poised to launch shipping and add dozens of jobs if barges could navigate the river again, said Billy Houston of the Tri Rivers Waterway Development Association, a trade group.
“We need to keep every economic development opportunity alive - even if we cannot see the opportunity at this time,” he said.
Corps spokeswoman Lisa Parker said the plan to de-staff the locks evolved after a nationwide review that found the three locks on the Chattahoochee’s river system were rarely used. Eight staffers now operate the locks, and the agency spends more than $1 million each year to operate and maintain them.
Parker said the new plan, designed to “stretch tax dollars,” means the locks would be staffed by request only for commercial traffic. Recreational vessels would be severely limited from traveling through the locks as well.
Some suggest the move is overdue.
“Time moves on and maintaining a shipping channel for barges is prohibitively expensive,” said Lynn Willoughby, author of a book on the Chattahochee’s history. She said it once was key to regional commerce but now is more important as a source of water, power and recreation for the three states that share it.
Others see it as a waste of an invaluable asset.
“You can go from here to anywhere in the world with our river,” said Bobby Rowe, a Columbus real estate agent. “But not any more.”