The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has closed Holt Lock on the Black Warrior River in Tuscaloosa over significant safety risks posed by aging infrastructure there.

Locks make rivers more easily navigable in places where there's an elevation change. A barge on the higher waters can enter the lock, which closes, and a controlled pool of water is drained to the river's lower flow position. Barges going upriver can use the lock to go the other way, too, and climb to higher elevations when the pool is filled again.

They turn what would be impassable waterfalls into usable commercial waterways.

The Corps closed the 58-year-old lock on Saturday after a team from their Engineering District in Mobile analyzed the structure and found "critical stability issues with the monolith structure of the Holt Lock."

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Nelson R. Sanchez, the Operations Division Chief at the Mobile District, led a call briefing local waterway users about the issue Monday.

"There was a major concern for the safety of industry as well as our own employees that work at that project so therefore we did close the lock Saturday at noon," Sanchez said.

Sanchez and District Commander Col. Jeremy Chapman said the Corps of Engineers has been aware of a crack in one of the concrete monoliths forming the lock for eight or nine years, but in the last 30 days, the problem appears to be worsening.

"We had a situation that's been brewing at Holt for many years with the cracking of a monolith and in the last 30 days, we noticed some serious movement of that monolith, so we started looking at it more closely, more monitoring and in the last two weeks it's even gotten even worse," Sanchez said.

Until a solution can be engineered, paid for and implemented, each use of the lock to get a vessel higher or lower could increase the risk of catastrophic failure there.

"The bottom line is it's just unacceptable risk to the life of anybody in that chamber when we do a lockage of Holt Lock," Chapman said.

The lock will be closed except in cases of emergency, when vessels will require command approval to be locked through.

That will mean more logistical headaches for local companies who were just celebrating the reopening of a lock in Demopolis that closed for several months after a January breach.

Chapman said until the USACE can understand the extent of the problem and engineer a solution, they can't estimate how long the closure will last, but they said on the call it would be a matter of weeks or months, not days.

"I mean I would like to open as soon as possible, but we've got to look through the different solutions and how we can increase that stability safety factor for that monolith before we could open because again, we're risking the lives of the folks in the chamber, your tow crews and we're also risking the lives of the operators of the lock," Chapman said. "If that monolith goes that whole that whole building goes into the chamber. It's to the point that if we were to lose that entire monolith, we would lose a piece of that spillway. This wouldn't be Demopolis. This would be 10 times worse than Demopolis if it was a catastrophic failure to where the solution would require cofferdams - we'd lose the spillway, lose the pool and there would be no way of controlling the water. We'd have to cofferdam it and we're looking at a 2-3 year fix if that were to happen."

Chapman said he's visited the site personally and decided it needs immediate attention before the problem grows beyond what it is today.

"It's gotten progressively worse. There was fresh concrete falling out of the wall while we were there, chunks of concrete coming out of the cracks. It's not a good situation," Chapman said. "There are cracks in every lock, but not like this. This is different, to the point where you can almost see it getting worse when you're standing there."

Chapman and the other leaders on the call said they would need a couple weeks to think up a solution, but were optimistic they would be able to find funding to get the job done - time will be the critical factor in the project, not cost.

This situation is still in its earliest days - stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread for updates as they become available.

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