By David Rainer
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Recreational boaters are being recruited to turn out in force to keep the lock system open on the Alabama River.
The “Load the Lock” day is scheduled from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, August 17, at the Millers Ferry Lock and Dam on William “Bill” Dannelly Reservoir near Camden, Ala.
Because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers bases its lock policy on usage, the organizers of the “Load the Lock” program are trying to raise awareness of the problem and increase the recreational lockages to 500 per year.
The Corps of Engineers announced plans last year to close the locks on the Alabama River because of budget cuts. However, numerous recreational user groups contacted their respective congressmen and Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley about the need to keep the locks open. At a meeting of the Corps of Engineers and 55 stakeholders at Monroeville last September, the Corps listened as the stakeholders expressed concern that the lack of lock operations would impact the economic health of the state now and in the future as the state attempts to recruit new industry and promotes the river for recreational activities.
Gov. Bentley sent a letter to Corps headquarters to ask that the changes be reconsidered, highlighting the negative impact it could have on Alabama, especially the economically depressed Black Belt region.
The Corps of Engineers decided to adjust its new lock policy on the Alabama to 10 hours a day (6 a.m. to 4 p.m.), four days a week, Thursday through Monday. There are limitations, however. Locks will be closed on holidays and when the availability of lock operators is affected by annual sick leave terms.
According to the “Load the Lock” promotion, the outreach is: “Use 'em or lose 'em! Do your part to keep our Alabama River locks open for recreational boating. Here's your best chance to lock through an Alabama River Dam if you have never done it, and a chance to have fun on the water and enjoy new boating friends. Open to powerboats and paddleboats alike. It doesn't cost a thing and you can be on the river all day, locking through both ways. Even if you don't own a boat, this is something your entire family can enjoy. On an as-available basis, one of several participating boat owners will lock you through with them. For this you need to make a reservation at one of the contact numbers below, and you will need to bring your own life jacket.”
Organizers will have boats stationed for passage above and below the dam. For more information and reservations, contact Bobby Sillavan at 334 -872-3927 or 205-541-0454 or Bill Steadham at 334-682-9476.
James “Big Daddy” Lawler, a lifelong Camden resident, is promoting the “Load the Lock” event through his radio program, “Gettin’ Outdoors Show,” on WJDB, 95.5 FM in Camden. Lawler was around when the locks were built on the Alabama.
“Gov. George Wallace, Probate Judge Dannelly and Sen. Roland Cooper broke ground for these locks,” Lawler said. “They sold them to the public for navigation, flood control and recreation, with a high emphasis on recreation to get the public behind the project.
“Now that the money has run out because of the lack of commercial navigation, and the flood control aspect wasn’t that effective, now they’re trying to shut it down for recreational use. What it boils down to is we need to get 500 lockages each year at every lock to keep them open. This is what this event is all about, trying to lock through all day and get all the publicity we can get so we won’t lose the locks.”
Lawler remembers what it like before the locks were built, fishing the old jetties and old river channel for Alabama spotted bass.
“We’re trying to make the politicians understand what kind of economic impact it would have on our area, not only the Black Belt but all the way to Mobile for people traveling to the Gulf Coast,” he said. “If you’ve got a big boat in Montgomery, you’ll be landlocked if they shut the locks down. It would be a tragedy if they did that.”
Lawler said shutting the locks would stymie any kind of recreational promotion just as Millers Ferry is set to become one of the lakes on the Alabama Bass Trail in 2014.
“The area is just now realizing the economic impact of the outdoors on the area, the fishing and hunting in the Black Belt,” he said. “This would be devastating. Even if we don’t get the 500 lockages on each lock, still, it’s going to impact our ability to market the area for recreational boating and fishing. And people don’t realize how many big boats are on the Alabama River that will be landlocked if they shut the locks down.”
Bill Steadham is one of those boat owners who will be negatively affected should the locks be closed to recreational travel. He owns a 60-foot boat that is docked on Millers Ferry.
“I’ll be landlocked, but I’m not the only one affected,” Steadham said. “It just shuts us down. I go to Gulf Shores and Fort Walton. I go to Montgomery, too. People just don’t realize how important the locks are. The other thing is if they shut these locks down or tear them out, it shuts down any new industry north of here. Once they shut it down, it’s hard to get it back open. We live in a very depressed area. If it weren’t for the paper mills, we wouldn’t have any work.
“We just want to make people aware of what’s going on and try to get as many boats through the lock as we can on that day. The thing is if we put 10 boats through at one time, that only counts as one lock.”
Steadham, who has worked at one of those paper mills for more than 36 years, said at one time there was plenty of commercial traffic on the Alabama to supply the paper mills. However, now the mills have the wood shipped to Mobile and 18-wheelers carry the logs to the mills.
“Everybody thinks it’s a personal thing for me, but it’s really not,” he said. “If a big company were to come here and look at the Alabama River, the lock situation might make them think twice.”
Steadham said plenty of people are working hard to get the word out about “Load the Lock,” but he really doesn’t know what to expect on August 17.
“I’m hoping we’ll have between 50 to 75 boats,” he said. “We’ve talked to the guy manning the lock, and he’s going to cooperate with us. I’ll probably take my boat down there Friday night and spend the night. The thing is, we can work with the schedule they’ve got right now, Thursday through Monday. If they shut it down, we have no recourse.
“People just don’t realize the economic impact of this water. When we moved to Camden, I bought the lot to build my house on for $3,750. Now there are lots selling for $100,000 and more. If we lose this lake and everything that goes with it, Wilcox County will dry up.”