Montgomery Point Lock and Dam Completed in Arkansas

Sat July 24, 2004 - West Edition

YANCOPIN, AR (AP) The new Montgomery Point Lock and Dam was officially completed July 16 with a dedication ceremony recognizing the $237 million public works project and two decades of planning and construction.

The lock and dam was built because of periodic low-water conditions on the White River channel at its entrance to the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System. Montgomery Point was designed to maintain a year-round navigation pool and eliminate the need for major dredging in the area.

Officials were asked in 1980 to investigate low-water problems on the White River and a feasibility study began in 1986.

But most Arkansans will likely be oblivious to the new lock and dam.

It was built far from their eyes, amid pristine bottomland hardwood forest that’s part of a national wildlife refuge, and only accessible by land over a dirt road that in some places is prone to seasonal flooding. Those most likely to notice it are hunters, anglers and barge crews passing through the area northeast of Dumas where the White, Arkansas and Mississippi rivers converge.

On the one hand, that’s almost a shame, considering that the structure is an impressive feat of engineering that represents an advancement in lock and dam construction. On the other, it is intended to be unobtrusive in response to environmental concerns.

“This was certainly a very complicated design. There’s not many countries that could do this,” said Army Corps of Engineers project manager Mike Biggs. “To go to a remote site like this at the confluence of three rivers and put in a state-of-the-art design was definitely an engineering feat that’s worthy of recognition.”

It’s almost a sure thing that the most people who will ever be at the site at one time will be the up to 350 who were expected when the Montgomery Point Lock and Dam was dedicated. As part of the ceremony, the World War II-era submarine USS Razorback was scheduled to be the first vessel to transit the structure on itsway up the Arkansas River to a permanent home in North Little Rock.

The project was built to ease seasonal navigation problems along a 10.2-mile stretch of the White River connecting the Mississippi River with the Arkansas River, a transportation corridor for commodities from Arkansas and Oklahoma. Together, the corridor is called the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, stretching 445 river miles with 18 locks and dams helping traffic climb 420 feet of elevation.

Officials said the problem that Montgomery Point is designed to fix is seasonal low water levels in the area –– the water becomes shallower as the Mississippi River level drops.

Corps spokesman P.J. Spaul said that, in the past, the agency has had to dredge the area frequently to keep a deep-enough channel open. During low-water periods, he said, traffic was restricted, occasionally had to be escorted to the canal connecting to the Arkansas River or was shut down completely.

The dam itself is unique, employing hinged-crest gates that can be lowered to the river bottom when the water level is high enough to make the adjacent lock unnecessary. Traffic will pass over the gates to one side of the lock.

When the river drops, the gate will be raised to block downstream flow and create a deep-enough navigational pool for barges to use after passing through the lock.

Biggs said at least one similar dam design has been built, but the one at Montgomery Point is a step forward because it uses hydraulics to raise and lower the gates. Also, he said, since the water level at that point can fluctuate up to 60 ft., the concrete wharf and concrete guide walls of the lock are designed to float.

Unlike most lock and dams, which tend to be large and bulky structures, the one at Montgomery Point is small. Biggs said the control tower is the only part that will always be visible above water.

Bob Portiss, former president of the Arkansas-Oklahoma Port Operators Association, said the Arkansas River system handles about 12 million tons of cargo each year, and he expects that to increase with the Montgomery Point project complete.

“It finally enables us to prove to our shippers that we do have a reliable river. This will take care of that problem,” he said. “If there was a lack of confidence, this will restore it.”

Environmental concerns also play a part in the project. Conservationists hope the design will help stabilize the lower White River, in turn helping preserve intact the surrounding bottomland forest.

Also, Corps officials said the dam will eliminate the need for about 90 percent of the dredging that currently takes place, reducing the amount of disturbance to mussel beds.

“There are some co-benefits that we hope will come from the dam,” said Lee Moore, lower Mississippi River program director for The Nature Conservancy.

Biggs said the needs of the different groups involved worked out well for the most part.

“Why put in all the bells and whistles when what you need is a lock and a dam?,” he said.