Thursday, July 25, 2024

Corps of Engineers may discontinue Cape Fear dam management, what will it mean for drinking water?

Since the Cape Fear River's three locks and dams have become far removed from their original, authorized purpose of navigation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is considering discontinuing federal management of the lock and dam system.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Wilmington District engineers inspect Lock and Dam 1 on the Cape Fear River. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Wilmington District engineers inspect Lock and Dam No. 1 on the Cape Fear River. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

SOUTHEASTERN, N.C. — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is looking into discontinuing its monitoring efforts at three regional dams.

Lock and Dam No. 1 in Riegelwood, Lock and Dam No. 2 in Elizabethtown, and the William O. Huske Lock and Dam No. 3 in Fayetteville are currently supervised by the Army Corps, but soon, that could change.

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Next week, the Army Corps will host a public meeting in Wilmington to discuss a disposition study that involves research efforts that focus on de-authorization and disposal recommendations.

The three dams, built between 1915 and 1935, were used historically to pass large commercial vessels up and down the Cape Fear River. Now, according to the Army Corps, the dams are rarely, if ever, used for this purpose.

“The locks and dams were constructed to ensure a navigable channel for commercial barges from Wilmington to Fayetteville,” Bob Keistler, the Wilmington District Civil Works Programs and Project Management branch chief, wrote in an email.

Costing the Army Corps approximately $600,000 a year to maintain, Keistler said the study will determine whether any or all features of the three dams could be transferred to a non-federal entity. He said it’s been years since a commercial vessel passed through the dams between Wilmington and Fayetteville.

“With the demise of commercial traffic between Wilmington and Fayetteville, the economic viability of the continued maintenance of the locks and dams for the purpose of commercial navigation is nullified,”  Keistler said.

Currently designated under “caretaker status,” Keistler said funds are only provided to meet minimal project operating costs.

Critical to local water supply

Used to monitor water intakes for nearby municipalities and companies, the dams were on the public’s radar recently during Hurricane Florence. Though none breached their capacity, days after the storm, no one was around to monitor Lock and Dam No. 1 as the river was rising.

Because the dams’ current function does not incorporate its original authorized purpose –to aid in riparian navigation along the Cape Fear River — the Army Corps is seeking alternative monitoring options.

Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, New Hanover County’s water utility, plans to submit formal comments regarding the disposition study, now underway.

With infrastructure serving nearly half of a million people, a CFPUA representative said Lock and Dam No. 1 is critical to the utility’s function.

Wilmington’s raw water intake was moved 20 miles upstream decades ago near the Riegelwood dam, where three counties now depend on the same intake source, Lindsey Hallock, CFPUA’s director of public and environmental policy, said.

“Lock and Dam No. 1 is critical to the drinking water supply for the customers of Cape Fear Public Utility Authority,” Hallock wrote in an email. “It protects our source water from increasing salinity downstream and provides the water volume needed to meet community demand.”

CFPUA plans to submit formal comments on the disposition study, currently underway, for Army Corps’ consideration.

Planned on Dec. 12, Army Corps representatives will discuss in a public meeting whether federal interest in continuing maintenance of the locks and dams still exists and if disposal of the property is warranted.

Held in Elizabethtown from 5:30 to 7 p.m., Army Corps will host their “Public Scoping” meeting next week.

Click around map below to view the location of the Army Corps’ three dams on the Cape Fear River upstream from Wilmington.

Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee at

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