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Move On to Take Over River Locks, Dams

Lock and Dam No. 1 on the Cape Fear River features a rock arch rapids designed to allow migratory fish to travel upstream. Photo: Army Corps of Engineers.

WILMINGTON – A public utility will soon toss in a bid to become the new owners of the locks and dams on the Cape Fear River between Fayetteville and Wilmington.

Fayetteville Public Works Commission, or PWC, was expected to submit a letter of intent this month to take ownership of three locks and dams currently owned and managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“That’s our plan,” Carolyn Justice-Hinson, the commission’s communications and community relations officer, said last week in an interview. “I think the plan will be (to submit a letter of intent) in the next one to two weeks, but I know everything is in the works to prepare it.”

If the federal government relinquishes ownership of the system of three locks and dams to the commission, the commission would transfer possession and management of Lock and Dam No. 1 to the Lower Cape Fear Sewer & Water Authority in Leland.

The Corps released in January a draft disposition study of the locks and dams system and is recommending the deauthorization and transfer of the structures.

That study was initiated in 2018 because the locks and dams, built decades ago to maintain a navigable channel for commercial barges traveling from Wilmington to Fayetteville, are no longer needed for the purpose in which they were constructed. Commercial use ceased in 1995.

Transfer of the locks and dams would be free with the new owners accepting responsibility for all future maintenance costs.

Fayetteville PWC is following the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, which submitted its letter of intent Feb. 28 on behalf of the state.

“We don’t see this as a competition, we want the interests of all basin stakeholders addressed,” Justice-Hinson said in an email following a telephone interview. “PWC has met with state leaders on the issue and as mentioned, we see this as a collaborative effort to protect the interest of the Cape Fear River Basin.”

Anglers try their luck for catfish at Lock and Dam No. 3 on the Cape Fear River. Photo: N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission

From a local standpoint, the stakes are high because, if the locks and dams were to be abandoned that would jeopardize the drinking water supply to thousands of customers.

The William O. Huske Lock & Dam No. 3, which is about 17 miles southeast of Fayetteville, is “critical to our water supply,” Justice-Hinson said.

PWC provides water to a population of about 200,000 Cumberland County residents, including Army base Fort Bragg, she said.

Jerry Pierce, interim executive director of the Lower Cape Fear Sewer & Water Authority, said the utilities simply want to protect their regions’ water supplies.

“A representative of the state has told us on numerous occasions that there are five stakeholder groups and that water supply is equal to the other four,” he said. “We believe that water supply is more important than recreation and some of the other things they talked about.”

In December, DEQ hosted a meeting where community organizations, local utilities and leaders discussed their priorities and concerns.

Division officials met again last month with local utilities “to further discuss their interests and reinforce that the state would continue to prioritize protecting water supply for the communities that rely on these areas for their drinking water,” according to a DEQ press release.

What troubles local officials is a bill the North Carolina General Assembly enacted more than a decade ago to accept, with conditions, the transfer of the locks and dams.

House Bill 2785 allows the state to accept transfer of the locks and dams and all federally owned adjacent lands with the stipulation that all three structures be “properly refurbished” and rock arch rapids fish ladders constructed at each one.

“If the state can’t meet this requirement, the L&D would be abandoned if another entity (like PWC) wasn’t granted ownership,” Justice-Hinson said in the email. “If the L&D are abandoned, it jeopardizes the water supply and other interests are not addressed so our Letter of Intent provides options to prevent this from occurring.”

Lock & Dam No. 1 at Kings Bluff, about 39 miles above Wilmington on the river, is the only one of the three structures with a rock arch rapids designed to allow migratory fish such as shad, river herring, striped bass, Atlantic sturgeon and shortnose sturgeon to travel upstream.

“We’re happy with the rock ladder,” Pierce said. “We certainly wouldn’t take it out.”

Sarah Young Perkins, Division of Water Resources public information officer, said in an email that the state is studying the costs to install fish ladders at the other two locks and dams.

“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has deemed all three locks and dams substantially safe and currently in acceptable condition,” she said. “The State continues to have productive conservations with our federal, state and local leaders about anticipated costs and the need for dedicated appropriations from the General Assembly in the coming years. Locks and Dams 2 and 3 continue to be studied for associated costs with modifications that will be necessary to ensure fish passage.”

Cape Fear River Partnership Coordinator Dawn York said a project study is back underway to evaluate a preferred model for a fish ladder at Lock & Dam No. 3.

“To add to that is recent discussions and thought processes of what to do at Lock and Dam No. 2 considering there isn’t a major water intake there,” York said. “So, there is some consideration and evaluation of data to analyze whether Lock and Dam No. 2 removal would be feasible. If Lock and Dam 2 were to be removed it would open up approximately 56 miles of riverine habitat for federally managed and listed anadromous fish. That’s a lot of tributaries opened up.”

What’s next?

The Corps’ Wilmington District will send its final report to the South Atlantic Division on May 22, according to Dave Connolly, the district’s public affairs chief.

That study will not recommend which entity should receive ownership of the locks and dams and accompanying property, he said in an email.

“The decision will ultimately be made by the General Services Administration, or GSA,” Connolly said.

The process, he explains, generally goes like this:

  1. A report and recommendation of excess, or RROE, will be submitted, along with environmental and cultural resources clearances, to Corps’ headquarters in Washington for approval.
  2. Once the RROE is approved, the Corps will determine whether the Department of Defense has any interest in the property. If not, another report will be prepared and sent to the appropriate GSA regional office.

“GSA would perform the entire disposal process including screening with HUD, and other-than DOD Federal, state and local governments,” Connolly said. “Congress also has the ability to transfer the locks and dams to an entity through special legislation.”

State officials estimate a transfer will take between two to five years.

About the Author

Trista Talton

Trista Talton is a native North Carolinian who, shortly after graduating from Appalachian State University in 1996, took her first newspaper job as a reporter for the Hickory Daily Record. She has since migrated to the coast, covering everything from education and local governments to law enforcement, the environment and the military, including an embed with Marines in Kuwait for the start of the Iraq war in 2003. She has been a Coastal Review Online contributing writer since 2011 focusing on coastal-related issues from Onslow to Brunswick counties. She lives with her husband and two sons in Jacksonville.