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Skuna River Is A Tricky Adversary

By David Howell

The ups and downs marking the progress for the replacement bridge spanning Skuna River at Gums Crossing seem to fluctuate more than the lake level at Grenada Lake. And the lake level is paramount to the project as round after round of rain dumps more water in the lake, complicating efforts to pull one final section of the 70 year-old bridge from the murky water.

That final massive chunk of the old bridge is 35 feet long, several feet thick and heavily reinforced with rebar. Once the deck of the bridge, that piece is all that remains before work can start on building the new bridge across the lake bottom and river channel, reopening a vital connection in the county for hundreds of people forced to detour many miles.

That massive piece of concrete was part of the bridge that crumbled into the water in early 2020, a year after historic flooding struck a fatal blow to the bridge. The problem is that concrete slab is located directly where one of the new bridge pilings  will be hammered into the lake. When the design work started on the new bridge, the engineers didn’t know that it would become covered up in 27 feet of sand. For months crews have dredged around that concrete slab and another that were once the decking on the bridge.   One has been removed and the crews were closing in on the last one. It’s expensive work as divers are also utilized to drill holes in the concrete once uncovered to allow cables to be connected for extraction.

Early last week District Five Supervisor Gaylon Gray stopped in the office and was hopeful that the end was in sight, at least for the demolition stage. Days earlier the clunk of a trackhoe bucket on concrete was a sweet sound, workers were closing in on it.  Then a heavy rain upstream washed mud back into the hole, starting the entire process back over.

It is a safe assumption that nobody is more concerned about getting that new bridge open than Gray. The bridge is in his district and he lives “across the river.” Gray has been adamant that the U.S. Corps of Engineers should have taken a more active role in the bridge replacement.

“They should have put us a bridge right there, Yalobusha County didn’t ask for that bridge. We had four bridges across Skuna River,” he explains

His comments reference the construction of Grenada Lake, which is another story for another day.  And that the U.S. Corps of Engineers should have been responsible for building the new bridge.

But whether the people in the county wanted it or not, the U.S. Corps of Engineers built the lake and the bridge and deeded the bridge to the county.  Then when the bridge failed, Gray stated, the U.S. Corps of Engineers has been more of a  hindrance.

Even more frustrating for Gray is that moving the new bridge over a few feet wasn’t a viable option. If the footprint of the bridge could have shifted, the massive concrete slabs would not have been a problem. This alone would have saved millions of dollars as the extra work to remove the concrete slabs will likely top $3 million – a big expense that wasn’t included in the $16.24 million bid for the bridge replacement project.

Gray explained that the county has an easement along the path of the old bridge, and that is where the new bridge must be built. Getting a new easement from the U.S. Corps of Engineers would have likely taken years and the county would have been forced into mitigation as part of the permitting process.  This means the county would have had to pay compensation for the impact to the wetlands or waters that are owned by the United States. Don’t ask me to explain that, but Gray said the compensation would have been in the millions.

Gray labels the entire project as the perfect storm – bureaucracy with all of the agencies involved, Covid halted the demolition work earlier this year after much of the crew was ill and, of course, the fluctuating lake level.

Gray added that  the project leader told him that he had never seen anything like it and he has constructed bridges across the nation. “He said he has never seen water come up and down like this,” Gray said.

Grays estimates the time frame will be six year starting late February, 2019, when it was closed. The bright side, his estimate would put us at the half-way mark.

Stay tuned, more to come.

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