DEVELOPING NAVIGABILITY IN MONTGOMERY
EVEN VERY SMALL MARINAS CAN BE A VERY BIG DEAL
The problem with recreational boating on the Alabama River is that most recreational boaters own trailorable boats and the incredible waters of the Gulf Coast and Lake Martin are only an easy drive away. But there is recreational boating on the Alabama river above the locks. In terms of preserving navigability it isn't a question of the presence of recreational boating its a question of the amount, the economic impact, and most importantly the effect of the lock and dam system on the economic impact of recreational boating.
THE SINGLE MOST IMPRESSIVE STATISTIC ON RECREATIONAL BOATING IS LOCK TRANSITS.
If you are really short on marinas above the locks there are two things you can do. In the short term you aren't likely to get a marina built before the budget debates start in January. But a bunch of cooperative local recreational boaters can increase lock transits through "raft up" events. Groups of recreational boaters can get organized and do weekend cruises through the locks. Bass tournaments can be organized for the "pools" between the locks that encourage fishermen to use the locks and fish different pools. The local boat clubs , power squadron, or possibly Coast Guard Auxiliary units could offer classes on inland navigation, including how to safely use locks and dams. The Federal Government has never created a lock and dam system for fishermen and recreational boaters, but the system recognizes the economic impact of sport fishing and recreational boating.
Here is an example of how it sometimes works. At the time of Louis and Clark the upper reaches of the Missouri river were a nearly dry gulch in the late summer and a raging torrent in the Spring time. Over a period of one hundred years the Missouri was bracketed by locks and dams. The river today is actually a series of pools, relatively slack water between a series of dams. Boatmen and wild life experience the region as a sort of chain of lakes. Residents in the river's flood plain hailed the projects as a major improvement in flood control. Bald eagles enjoy the pools as fish havens, water fowl flourish in what was once seasonally a dry gulch. For a time, indeed a long time, towboat and barge navigation gave Missouri river valley farmers an alternative to rail for export grain shipments. Then years of severe drought hit the valley.
To keep commercial navigation going, the Corps of Engineers had to release water from the upper pools to the lower and eventually into the Mississippi. Some of the upper pools became environmentally distressed and sport fishing began to suffer as did several endangered species. The sport fishermen and the environmentalist got together and forced the U.S.Army Corps of Engineers to change the management plan for the entire waterway. Water releases to sustain navigable channels down stream were prohibited from the upper pools if such releases threatened wildlife or fisheries. Continued years of drought made channel availability unreliable. The towing companies all but abandoned the waterway. Ask a former Missouri towboat man what happened to navigation on the Missouri and he'll likely answer; "The tree huggers got the river." Indeed basically they did, but the near disappearance of commercial navigation did not spell the end of lock operations.
The Missouri might belong to the fish and ducks and eagles now ( they always co existed with the towboats but now they are the land lords), but it turned out the fish need the locks. Hatchery raised fingerlings can be moved by tank barge between pools to enhance the "put and take" part of the sport fishery. The hatchery fingerlings do seem to survive to adult hood in reasonable numbers but are easier to catch than their wild cousins. Both men and eagles find them easier to catch. There is infrastructure along the river for moving bulk commodities that is not being abandoned and must occasionally be repaired. Such repairs generate a trip through the locks by construction barges and their attendant towboats. There is enough recreational boating to support mariners and repair yards and these too need the occasional construction barge and tenders. Some bulk commodities do move by contract tow out of the valley in season. But these are moistly hard minerals. Without reliable navigable channels the line haul service for grain died out. But, the river remains navigable in season, and the navigational infrastructure first developed for farmers in need of low cost grain transport is still operated and maintained to service an economy now dominated by recreational boating and fishing.
Normally tow boaters and fishermen and recreational boaters don't compete directly with each other. What happened on the Missouri was unusual. But it illustrates my point, the Federal Government will maintain locks and dams in areas that fall short in the commercial navigation department if some sort of lock dependent economy has evolved above the pools. The key in the short term is to develop recreational boating traffic through the locks even it requires sponsored and staged events. In the longer term the city needs to encourage marina development on the River above the locks. With recreational mariner development small craft repair capabilities often evolve.
Now consider this, down on the Gulf Coast there are hundreds of commercial work boats not much larger than the larger recreational boats. Many of these vessels can be worked on competently by recreational boat yards. Montgomery has both an advantage and a disadvantage location wise for this small commercial vessel repair work. Owners will be discouraged to travel their boat there because it's 100 miles up river and behind three locks. But during hurricane season from June through November Montgomery's disadvantage becomes a marketable advantage. A work boat's repair work won't be disturbed by Gulf storms. If a tropical system catches a work boat while it is up "on the ways" in Montgomery, it is safe and the work will probably be completed on time. Recreational traffic is easier , cheaper and faster to generate than commercial work boat traffic but serious recreational boating infrastructure coupled with imaginative marketing can become dual use. The cheapest start the city and county can make is to increase the number of public boat launches on the river
Recreational boaters and fishermen of Montgomery lend me your ears! Get thee to the river and turn south and go through the locks! In your wake could follow a whole new economic sector. Yours could be the pilot boat that eventually brings in marinas and repair yards, passenger cruise vessels, out sized water side manufacturing, and eventually the return of commercial navigation. Be careful, be safe, be prepared, but get organized and go in groups. Log those lock passages, show Uncle Sam you mean to promote and develop navigation. Navigability, even when in a temporary dormant stage is a terrible thing to lose. If you live in Montgomery you have a stake in navigability. If you live in Montgomery and own a boat, you have a vote! Vote with your outboard, transit a lock! Lobby for more launch ramps on the river, support marina development!
Tomorrow we will look again briefly at Montgomery's potential as an inland cruise boat destination.
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