On the Ohio River near the village of Olmsted, Illinois, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has completed one of its largest civil works projects since construction of the Panama Canal. This achievement, of what the Corps classifies as a megaproject, has now eliminated economically significant and unpredictable bottlenecks from the hub of the nation’s inland waterways transportation system.
In recognition of that accomplishment, Olmsted Locks and Dam has been honored by ASCE as a 2020 Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Honor Award recipient.
All 10 Honor Award projects will be showcased at ASCE’s 2020 OPAL Gala, March 13, in Washington, D.C., with two runners-up and the OCEA winner announced at the event.
A lock is essentially a water elevator that enables navigation on inland rivers. The Olmsted Locks and Dam project replaced the failing Locks and Dams 52 and 53, two projects that hydraulically lower or raise vessels around a dam to continue passage. Locks and Dams 52 and 53, built in the 1920s and decades beyond their planned service lives, had been receiving only “Band-Aid-type repairs” recently to extend their operability. Even then, the standard 15-barge tow used on the Lower Ohio River often had to be broken into segments or wait as long as 60 hours to pass through a “temporary” lock chamber constructed over 40 years ago to get around the dam.
The fix? Replace these two failing structures with the Olmsted Locks and Dam project using an innovative in-the-wet construction method. Forty-three precast-concrete components known as shells, almost a third of a football field in size and weighing up to 4,500 tons, were built in an onsite casting yard, transported to the river, floated to their location and lowered precisely into place on the river bottom. Once in location they were filled “solid” with more concrete, locking them onto their steel pile foundation permanently.
To ensure all specifications and tolerances were met in 75 feet of murky river water often resembling chocolate milk required over 15,000 dives by a specially trained team of hard-hat professionals. The initial phases of the project started back in 1993, with construction of the dam beginning in 2004 and finishing in 2018, meaning some of the engineers involved had been working on this project for close to their entire career.
Adversity became common; overcoming it routine. The Corps of Engineers Louisville District, along with large and small business contractors, subcontractors, suppliers and designers from across the U.S., replaced the aging Locks and Dams 52 and 53 to provide more efficient and reliable navigation to the Lower Ohio River. Operational now, with the navigational pool transitioned, Olmsted’s nearly $3 billion achievement represents 30 years of ingenuity and more than 45 million labor hours.
But it is the collaborative project management, the enduring commitment among all the strategic partners, that will forever change how USACE delivers megaprojects to the nation. This will be in further evidence with the final commissioning, site restoration and demolition of the legacy locks, expected to be completed within the next two years and well ahead of schedule.
The benefit of 90 million tons of commodities efficiently transiting this section of the lower Ohio annually is estimated at $640 million. The in-the-wet construction method allowed unrestricted barge traffic to pass the work area, was the least intrusive to the adjacent natural habitat and riverine environment, and created thousands of skilled jobs for economically challenged southern Illinois.