Kentucky River: A river to nowhere

Groups push to overturn decision to close locks

amead@herald-leader.comOctober 19, 2009 

  • If you go

    Kentucky River Authority Meeting

    When: 1 p.m. Tuesday

    Where: Conference Room 2 of the Bush Building, 403 Wapping Street, Frankfort

FRANKFORT — It used to be that you could put a boat anywhere in the Kentucky River and go anywhere in the world.

These days, it's a river to nowhere.

The locks upriver from Frankfort no longer work, so boats can't get past the dams that segment the river into a series of pools.

Operation of the locks between Frankfort and the Ohio River has become increasingly sporadic.

Last month, the Kentucky River Authority — concerned about protecting water supply and worried that someone could be hurt if a lock gate broke while a boat was inside — gave its blessing to putting barriers across the lock at Frankfort and the three between the city and the Ohio.

That decision did not sit well with members of the Frankfort Boat Club or with the city's tourism officials. They are awaiting completion of a $150,000 study of the economic impact that could come from redevelopment projects along the river, which cuts a large "S" through the city.

On Tuesday, the KRA's board will be asked to reconsider its action.

As a rain-swollen Kentucky River spilled over Lock and Dam No. 4 in Frankfort last week, and the air was filled with the smell of mash fermenting at the nearby Buffalo Trace Distillery, Joy Jeffries talked about how an open river is a central part of the development and tourism plan.

"If the locks are closed between here and the Ohio River, we turn into a lake instead of a river," said Jeffries, executive director of the Frankfort/Franklin County Tourist Commission.

Previous estimates and bids had put the cost of lock repairs at several million dollars for each one.

Stephen Reeder, the KRA's executive director, said David Hamilton, an engineer for the agency, has come up with a fix that will cost $1.25 million for each lock.

Putting a barrier across a lock costs as much as $500,000, Reeder said. Although most of the upriver locks have barriers, consultants say they won't work as well on Nos. 1 through 4. That's because they are constructed of cut stone instead of concrete over a timber frame.

Reeder will recommend Tuesday that the board spend the $1.25 million on No. 4. He also will recommend scheduling Nos. 1 through 3 for fixes in the KRA's six-year plan.

The proposal is likely to be controversial.

Boaters have long argued for spending money to keep open the aging locks. One marina in Frankfort has run ads in the local newspaper urging people to "Call up your congressmen and lobbyists!" to get more funding.

But water utilities that pay a fee for their withdrawals from the river — a fee that is passed on to customers — don't want that money spent for recreation.

Damon Talley, an attorney who represents a group of Central Kentucky municipal utilities called the Bluegrass Water Supply Commission, said his group interprets the law to say fee money can be spent only on protecting and enhancing water supply.

"Recreation on the river has always been and will continue to be a very important resource for this area," Talley said last week. "But the BWSC does not want water-withdrawal fees to be directed to repairing or reconstructing locks on the river."

The locks are critical for water supply, Reeder said, because if a lock gate breaks and washes away, the water being held behind the dam goes, too. Lock and Dam No. 4 holds the pool that provides Frankfort's water supply. Lock and Dam 3 holds the pool that a new Kentucky American Water plant under construction near Monterey will draw from to augment Lexington's supply.

But Reeder said he has figured out a way to fix the lock and No. 4 without touching fee money.

In 2006, the General Assembly wanted to give the KRA $17.5 million to replace Lock and Dam No. 9 at Valley View, which holds Lexington's primary water supply.

Then-Gov. Ernie Fletcher vetoed that appropriation. To build the new dam, the river authority raised withdrawal fees by about 30 cents a month for a typical household. That dam is nearing completion.

Two years later, Gov. Steve Beshear put the $17.5 million back into the budget. That money is being spent on replacing Lock and Dam No. 3, but it's costing only $16.2 million.

The extra money was going to be spent on repairs on Dam Nos. 1 and 2. Reeder will propose moving it to the lock at No. 4.

Work on the locks at Nos. 1 through 3 would have to wait on a General Assembly that would allocate more money in better economic times. Without repairs, consultants say, the locks are too fragile to operate.

KRA board member Donald Haney, who moved to put the barrier across the locks last month, said last week that he might rather spend the money on repairing the lock at No. 10 in Fort Boonesborough State Park. There's also a large and unhappy group of boaters on that part of the river.

There is general agreement on one thing: The old Kentucky River Navigation System is showing its age, and parts of it will need considerable work over the next few years and decades.

The Kentucky River begins as small streams high in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. Its three forks come together near Beattyville in Lee County to form the river's main stem.

In the 250 miles between Beattyville and the Ohio River, the Kentucky is terraced into pools behind 14 locks and dams.

The dams turn the river into flat pools that make navigation easier. The locks allow boats to move between higher and lower pools.

Construction of the first four dams between the Ohio and Frankfort began in 1836. They started operating in 1839 and 1840.

The last dam, near Beattyville, was completed in 1917.

By that time, the railroads had reached Eastern Kentucky and were hauling out coal. Some coal moved by river, but not much.

In the early 1980s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owned the dams, started talking about closing the locks upriver from Frankfort because there was no commercial traffic. In 2001, a company that hauled sand on barges from Frankfort to the Ohio stopped operating, and there was no commercial traffic anywhere.

By 2006, fewer than 100 boats came through the lock in Frankfort, Corps records show.

But lock supporters such as Rodney Simpson, who keeps a 39-foot cruiser on the river, talk about the days when 75 boats would come up the river on a weekend and the Frankfort hotels would fill up.

And Jeffries said locks operating on reliable schedules are needed to return to those levels.

"Part of this is the chicken and the egg — which came first?" she said. "The ability to lock through has been inconsistent, so how does our office market to people in Louisville or Cincinnati when we don't even know when the river is going to be open?"

Reach Andy Mead at (859) 231-3319 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3319.

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