Alabama waterways drive commerce

More than 27 million tons of freight were transported on Alabama's rivers in 2021, but the river infrastructure is old and repairs are needed to keep commerce flowing

Tim Parker III (left) and Tim Parker Jr., both of Parker Towing Co., talk with Cline Jones (right), chairman of the Coalition of Alabama Waterways, at the christening of Parker’s newest ship in Decatur in May. Photos by Dennis Keim.

Early on the morning of Jan. 16, 2024, the lock operator at the Demopolis Lock and Dam on the Tombigbee River heard a loud boom. Suddenly, water was rushing uncontrolled under the gate. The concrete on the almost 70-year-old gate had given way.

A lock helps level out water at a dam to allow traffic to pass through, such as moving from an upper pool elevation to a lower pool elevation. Suddenly, without an operable lock, the Demopolis area was closed to river traffic.

Barge traffic, which typically moves about 21 million tons of coal, steel and other cargo annually along the Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway, came to a halt. Since January, a trip that typically takes a week to move cargo from one end of the state to the other and back has taken a month, because waterway traffic that would usually head south has to instead ship north up to the Ohio River in Paducah, Kentucky, over to the Mississippi River and then back down to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway to reach Mobile, says Cline Jones, chairman of the Coalition of Alabama Waterways.

When the break occurred, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers worked quickly to stop the flow of water and has spent the past several months repairing the lock, pouring more than 2,000 cubic yards of concrete. The Demopolis lock was reopened May 16, 2024.

The failure of the Demopolis lock has cost companies millions of dollars, highlighting the importance of Alabama’s rivers to the economy of the state and nation — as well as the critical need for ongoing maintenance and repairs to the aging waterway infrastructure.

- Sponsor -

The River Economy

Alabama has nearly 1,270 miles of navigable, inland waterways, ranking it sixth in the country. In 2021, 27.8 million tons of freight, valued at $5.3 billion, moved on Alabama’s rivers, the equivalent of 695,000 truckloads, and those figures continue to grow. Numerous industries throughout the state and neighboring states depend on river commerce.

“The poultry industry in northeast Alabama is successful because of the Midwest farm products barged into Guntersville feed mills,” Jones says. “Huge transportation savings yields less expensive feed products that gives Alabama poultry producers a competitive edge. Also, rockets built in Decatur launch national security payloads, communications and weather satellites. United Launch Alliance ships eight loads of rockets out of Decatur annually. A conservative estimate of their value alone would be well in excess of $1 billion. If we are going back to the moon or to Mars, we will go by river first, through Wilson Lock in Florence.”

In other areas of the state, a variety of industries depend on shipping through the river system, says Wynne Fuller, president of the Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway Association. They include crude oil and petroleum; chemicals; coal for domestic manufacturing and export; coke; scrap steel, iron and other raw materials supporting steel manufacturing; finished steel coils; manufactured goods such as pipe; aggregates, such as rock, sand and gravel supporting construction and road building; and most recently, wood pellets, a renewable energy product that is exported to Europe. 

In 2021, the most recent year for which figures are available, Alabama’s inland ports, waterways and industries dependent on them supported nearly 134,000 jobs, according to the National Waterways Foundation. That translates into $8.4 billion in personal income, $15.9 billion in gross state product, and $35.4 billion in total output, giving rise to $1.7 billion in state and local tax revenue.

The Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway is the state’s busiest, “with tonnage steadily growing, particularly as new coal mines in the Holt area, between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, are being opened,” Fuller says. While the prolonged outage at the Demopolis Lock will affect tonnage in 2024, Fuller expects it “to snap back rapidly as repairs are completed at the end of May and shippers can return to the waterway.”

Unfortunately, the Demopolis lock isn’t the only one in the state facing challenges. At the Tennessee River’s Wilson Dam in Florence, remnants of Hurricane Ida sank a floating guidewall in 2021. There’s no money for a replacement, which would cost $185 million, and while lock operations continue, everything takes longer. Barges are waiting an average of 13 to 15 hours to begin locking through Wilson Lock, and lock processing time has risen to an average of seven hours, according to analysis by TVA and the Corps of Engineers.

Shutdowns and delays like this translate into negative effects on the state economy, as companies must wait longer and pay more for needed goods such as asphalt, petroleum products, chemical products and sand. “Delays at Wilson Lock are hurting the economy in Huntsville and Decatur, and the Demopolis shutdown is killing companies in South Alabama and Mississippi,” Jones says.

Benefits of River Shipping

Transporting goods along the state’s rivers is both cost-effective and environmentally advantageous. Shipping by barge rather than by rail or truck reduces costs by an estimated $400 to $500 million each year, and those reductions ease prices for consumers, says Adam May, media relations spokesperson for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which operates the three locks in north Alabama along 201 miles of the Tennessee River.

“Barges also have big environmental benefits,” May says. “One barge can ship as much tonnage as 60 semi-trucks or 15 railcars, which means that water transportation can reduce highway traffic, fuel consumption, air pollution, wear and tear on roads and the number of tires sent to landfills.”

Barges also have a lower carbon footprint than trucks or rail, producing 15.1 tons of CO2 per million ton-miles. That’s 43% less than rail, which produces 21.6 tons of CO2 per million ton-miles, and 832% less than trucks, which produce 140.7 tons per million ton-miles. 

In addition, river shipping “is the safest mode of surface transportation, with the lowest number of accidents per ton shipped of any mode,” Fuller says. “The probability of highway and rail accidents would increase if all this cargo were shifted from water to highway or rail. It also reduces the wear and tear on highways and congestion on already overtaxed roads.”

Eyes on Failing Infrastructure

The recent lock failure at Demopolis and guide wall sinking at Wilson has brought attention to the fact that “most of our river infrastructure is 70 to 100 years old,” Jones says.

As a result, decision makers are considering how to prioritize lock evaluations and potential replacements. For example, the Army Corps of Engineers has announced it will examine locks annually rather than every five years, as has been the standard. Leaders in the Mobile district are “reevaluating their locks and looking to do repairs,” Jones says. “They’re starting the process of studying replacements.”

Replacing historic river infrastructure is not a simple proposition. A new, 600-foot lock costs $1 billion and takes 12 to 15 years to build, Jones says. For example, new Tennessee River locks underway at Kentucky and Chickamauga started in 2007 and are nearing completion.

Towboat operators pay a $0.29 per gallon gas tax, which provides $400 million annually to go toward major renovations and construction projects. However, with aging infrastructure and a backlog of projects, it will take years to provide funding to go around, Jones says. Leaders in the Alabama waterways take trips to Washington, D.C., regularly to educate legislators about the needs and request funding, with varied success. “The rivers are a priority, but there’s so much competition for federal dollars,” Jones says.

River Shipping’s Impact to the State

Alabama’s inland waterways make several of its industries possible, providing the economic backbone for many of the cities and towns located along the rivers throughout the state. But the rivers also offer promise for continued and sustainable economic development for the state.

“The availability of low-cost and environmentally sustainable waterborne transportation makes Alabama particularly attractive to major industries, industries with some of the highest paying jobs in the country,” Fuller says. “Few states tout the terrific network of our waterway system that is attractive to large industries, importers, and exporters of raw materials and manufactured products.”

For example, the Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway and the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway comprise the M-65 Marine Highway, part of the National Marine Highway System. This designation provides Alabama industries access to markets throughout the Northeast, Midwest and South. “When industries are making very strategic decisions on the siting of a new plant, access to a reliable waterway is often the deciding factor,” Fuller says.

Nancy Mann Jackson and Dennis Keim are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Madison and he in Huntsville.

This article appears in the June 2024 issue of Business Alabama.

The latest Alabama business news delivered to your inbox