US Army Corps of Engineers
Great Lakes and Ohio River Division

Ohio River Navigation


The Ohio River navigation projects are built, operated and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to serve the regional transportation needs with continuous year-around, 24-hour-a-day operations. Since 1910, when the Rives and Harbors Act authorized the Corps of Engineers to complete a system of locks and dams for navigation, modernization of the system has continued to meet the transportation demands of the region.  

The Ohio River and its seven navigable tributaries comprises over 2,500 miles of waterways and moves more than 270 million tons of coal, coke, aggregates, chemicals, agricultural and petroleum products. This waterway transportation provides a less costly means for companies to transport bulk goods. Cheaper transportation translates into lower cost for the consumer, such as electric power. The Ohio River is home to 49 coal-fired power plants, 20 percent of nation’s coal-fired generating capacity. The river provides more than half a million jobs and generates billions of dollars in business activity.  The Corps of Engineers maintains a 9-foot channel depth on the Ohio River navigation system. These pools also serve as a source of quality drinking water for millions of people who reside in the Ohio River valley.  

Modernization of the Ohio River system continues to be a top local, regional and national priority. Within five years, over half of the current navigation structures will be past their structural design life. In order to maintain safe, reliable transportation, the Corps of Engineers is evaluating economic, environmental and social influences with long-term navigation needs; forecasting future river usage and establishing modernization investment priorities. For more information go to Ohio River Mainstem System Study.  

Several modernization projects are currently underway:

  • In Louisville, Kentucky, McAlpine Locks and Dam, the Corps is replacing two small locks with a large lock to expedite navigation at one of the busiest locks on the Ohio River. 
  • Olmsted, Illinois is the location of a new lock and dam, which will replace two aging, 1929-era wicket dams. This $1 billion project will help move traffic through the lower Ohio River to and from the Mississippi System. Many innovation engineering solutions, such as construction on land and floating sections to the river, are being applied to get this lock operating as soon as possible. 
  • Two lock enlargements have been authorized on the Ohio River at J.T. Myers (Uniontown, Kentucky) and Greenup Locks (Ashland, Kentucky). These larger locks will help to accommodate more modern 15-barge tows and expedite delivery of commodities. 
  • Near Charleston, West Virginia, construction at Marmet Locks and Dam will replace small locks at one of the three navigation projects on the Kanawha River. 
  • Just outside Pittsburgh on the lower Monogahela, three of the oldest locks and dams are being modernized. Innovations at Braddock Dam earned the 2004 American Society of Civil Engineer Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award. 
  • Kentucky Lock on the Tennessee River in Western Kentucky is currently being modernized by constructing a larger lock adjacent and landward of the existing small lock.

As with all Ohio River navigation construction projects, these are costs-shared with the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. 

Maintaining the Ohio River System

Recently a number of unanticipated lock repairs have caused major traffic jams on the Ohio River system. These repairs were necessary to prevent a failure of gates that could result in a much longer and costlier repairs and potential closures. At Greenup, emergency repairs to the large lock kept it out of service for 53 days resulting in major delays of commodities to their intended destination. Impact to the region was calculated at over $14 million while barges loaded with commodities backed up 30 miles waited to lock through at Greenup. When the Corps of Engineers determined the McAlpine lock unanticipated repair would result in shutting down the Ohio River for nearly two weeks, coordination with regional industry provided advance notice so commodities could be stockpiled. The Corps worked round-the-clock to complete repair work. McAlpine lock closure and repair was completed safely due to cooperation between the Corps of Engineers, the United States Coast Guard and the navigation industry working together. Knowing the age of the lock, the Corps is aware of the potential for problem and is conducting regular inspections and surveillance to anticipate required maintenance and repairs in order to ensure safe, reliable navigation on the Ohio River.