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Drought, lack of dredging stall barge traffic on Alabama River

By Bob Johnson
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — Dixie Pellet is winding up construction on a new plant near Selma that is to produce wood chips for Scandinavian countries to use as fuel in power plants.

But first Dixie Pellets needs to get the chips from Selma to Mobile. Due to this year’s drought and sludge and sand on the river bottom, barges are not able to haul anything down the Alabama River from Selma to the port city.

The sometimes shallow, slow, meandering river — once a prominent route for commerce in Alabama — has not been dredged since 2005 and hasn’t been fully navigable from Selma for at least four months.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers now has $3 million to dredge the river, but Corps spokeswoman Marilyn Phipps said the drought has left the river level too low in some areas for the dredging equipment to work. The dilemma was brought on partly by sledge from Hurricane Dennis, along with a sometimes “Catch 22”: federal funding is not made available to the Corps to dredge unless there’s enough barge business to justify it, but barge traffic is slowed by an undredged route.

The river is part of Alabama history dating back to the major Indian villages that dotted its banks centuries ago. Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto discovered the river in his search for gold and a passageway to China, and the state’s first permanent capital was at Cahaba at the confluence of the Alabama and Cahaba Rivers, not far from Selma.

Jerry Sailors, executive director of the Coosa-Alabama River Improvement Association, said the river needs to be at least 9 feet deep in the channel for barges to be able to operate. It’s now as shallow as five and six feet in some areas.

He said even during normal weather circumstances there are curving, slow-moving sections of the river in South Alabama, below Monroeville, that need to be dredged every year. But he said much of the dredging in 2005 was undone that July when Hurricane Dennis dumped extra sand and sludge into the river.

Later that year, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the Gulf Coast and the Corps of Engineers was not able to undo the damage caused by Dennis.

“When Katrina and Rita hit, Dennis was forgotten,” Sailors said.

Sailors said in recent years dredging the river has not been a federal government budgeting priority because barge traffic on the river has slowed down, mostly because of a reduction in demand for forestry products — previously the number one product carried by barge down the river.

But he said there are now new industries, like Dixie Pellet, that want to use the river. He said the river also is a good recruiting tool for encouraging businesses to locate in Alabama. But dredging can be a question mark.

“The federal government dictates criteria for dredging. One criteria is that if the navigation channel does not meet tonnage criteria, it may not receive money for budget,” Sailors said. He said the tonnage criteria is that 1 million tons a year be moved on the river.

“But we can’t meet the million-ton criteria unless we get the river open,” Sailors said.

Alex Farris is managing the Dixie Pellets project for New Gas Concepts. He said construction of the project will be complete in a couple of months and he hopes by then to be able to load wood pellets onto barges at the old state docks facility near Selma.

He said he is confident that once the weather returns to normal and the river is dredged, the barges will run regularly from Selma to Mobile.

“The Alabama River historically has been navigable. This is kind of an anomaly,” Farris said.

He said the $3 million for dredging is a wise investment for an important transportation route, with the price much higher to repair small sections on interstate highways.

If the rains don’t come, Farris said Dixie Pellets will truck it’s product to the Tombigbee River in Demopolis — about 50 miles to the west. The Tombigbee continues to be open to barge traffic.

Farris said he feels the growth of the automobile manufacturing industry in Alabama and other Southeastern states should provide motivation to keep the Alabama River dredged and open to barge traffic. But he said his company will not give up on Selma, even if the river is not immediately navigable.

“One of the main reasons we came to Selma is the great work force. The river is at an unprecedented low. Mother Nature is a cyclical thing. Before long we are going to be running the Alabama River full-time,” Farris said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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