High water means high stakes for Pittsburgh locks, dams

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District
Published March 30, 2021

PITTSBURGH — Rivers rise and rivers flow, but when a flood happens, somebody has to deal with the debris left behind. This is especially true at the U.S. Army corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District locks and dams, which are vital to the region.

“Without locks and dams, Pittsburgh doesn’t have electricity. You can’t turn on your television. Your kids can’t charge their tablets and play video games,” said Philip Delo, the lockmaster at Locks and Dams 3 on the Monongahela River at Elizabeth, which belongs to the district.

Local industries rely on the rivers to deliver coal to their power plants, using locks and dams to allow for safe passage.

In early March, high water from snow melts and rain affected three of the locks along the Monongahela River, especially the Elizabeth Locks and Dams, which had to stop operations for slightly more than a day. Water entered the operating machinery and topped the lock chamber walls.

Delo, who has been working for Pittsburgh District for 20 years, said Elizabeth might flood six to seven times per year depending on the weather and the season. The facility is one of the oldest functioning inland navigation locks in the nation, 114 years old, and one prone to the most floods along the three Pittsburgh rivers.

Delo, a native of Verona, Pennsylvania, has lived his entire life by the Pittsburgh rivers. It was not until he started working for the Corps of Engineers that he realized how important locks and dams were to daily life.

“Twenty-one years ago, I had no clue what these places were,” Delo said. “I took them for granted.”

Lock sites sometimes receive a flood prediction notice a couple of days in advance. That is when their work begins. Sometimes, they find out only a day in advance. The crew strips the area of equipment to prevent it from being washed away. They disassemble everything from handrails, controlling equipment and safety gear.

“I’m proud to say that because of our preparation before the flood came, we didn’t lose a single piece of equipment, and we didn’t have any safety incidents,” Delo said, who has held every job related to the facility from an operator, mechanic, to supervisor.

Floods can happen anytime, especially in early spring when snow melts combine with heavy rains, which is exactly what happened at the beginning of March.

The district’s water management team works closely with the National Weather Service to ensure reservoir releases are incorporated into NWS’ river forecasts. When NWS issues a potential flood warning, water management reduces releases from upstream reservoirs to mitigate river levels.

The coordination between the district and NWS helps reduce flooding in the region.

“We operate 365 days a year in order to respond to short forecast windows and ensure that our district is doing its best to provide continued navigation to the community,” said Megan Gottlieb, the water management unit lead for the Pittsburgh District.

After the waters recede, it’s not a matter of a simple sweep. The lock area is filled with debris and mud. It can take weeks to clean up completely, but the crew works to get the site up and running as soon as safely possible by reinstalling equipment and putting the site back on service.

“The industry needs us to be ready. We need to be ready for them,” said Delo.

Even after the facility is operating normally, cleanup continues. They remove anything from tree trunks, branches and even trash that washes from the shoreline. The crew – composed of lock operators, mechanics and a supervisor – went to work with hoses, shovels, plow tractors and even their own hands to clear the mud from all the equipment.

“I’ve seen just about everything wash up: trash, toys, even basketballs. I see a lot of basketballs for some reason,” said Delo.

The locks are operated 24-hours a day, year-round. Delo said it is common for his operators to wake up at two in the morning to clear 10 inches of snow from their driveways so they can begin their shift on time in the winter.

“When you and your family are warm at home enjoying your Thanksgiving dinner, our crew is locking boats on the river,” he said.

Waterway transportation is also environmentally cleaner than traveling by roads. The Pittsburgh District estimates 1,500 tons of cargo moved on waterways requires two diesel engines, compared to 55 to 60 diesel engines carrying the same load by truck. This makes transportation 15 times more cost-effective by barge than via roadways, according to Steve Fritz, Mega Project program manager for the Pittsburgh District.