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Local surveyor: His life meanders like river


Army Corps of Engineers Chief Navigator Officer Allan Brewer, left, looks over papers with civil engineer technician Cliff Johnston.

Army Corps of Engineers Chief Navigator Officer Allan Brewer, left, looks over papers with civil engineer technician Cliff Johnston.
Photo by: John Dorroh/Dispatch Correspondent



John Dorroh



Columbus is a river town, so to start this week''s column, let me ask you a question about rivers. 


OK, here it is: Does the water in a flowing river tend to move in a straight line, or does it meander from side to side? You have three seconds, so think quickly. 


Answer: If you guessed in a straight line, probably the more obvious response, then you would be wrong. I learned that and a hundred other facts last week when I sat down with Cliff Johnston, a civil engineering technician. Johnston drives every morning to the well-camouflaged and ultra-modern facility for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Tenn-Tom Waterway Management Center) off of West Plymouth Road near the west bank of the Tenn-Tom River near Columbus. Most people don''t know such a facility exists. 




The river''s origin 


Johnston, a native of Fort Walton Beach, Fla., has worked at the facility since September 2004. His job description changes seasonally, requiring him to do some of his own meandering, just like the river water that has become his life. 


"I never wanted to be ''just'' a draftsman," he said. "I had had a job with the Army, surveying as the main part of my responsibilities." 


Johnston joined the U.S. Army in 1998 as a surveyor. He spent six years in active duty, including a year in Iraq before landing a job in Columbus. 


"I was a civil engineering technician," he said, "and was hired here because of my experience with surveying."  


While in Iraq, he was detached from his surveying company and then reattached to field infantry support. 


"I never realized what kind of danger I was in until I got back to the States," he said. "We were so focused on our daily missions that we really had no time to think about it."  


That was probably for the best. 


Johnston''s work has definite patterns, dictated more or less by the seasons, with some deviation caused by funding, or lack of it. 




Winter windings 


Winter time is for checking the river conditions, surveying problem spots from the Tennessee state line down to Demopolis, Ala., a 234-mile stretch of river with silt, sand, and soil that often needs dredging. 


Dredging is necessary to dig out "hills" of built-up sand, silt and soil that can form sandbars, which are potentially dangerous to both commercial and recreational river traffic. 


"There are about 120 locations that need to be checked," said Johnston. "We typically can handle only four a year, but there are about 20 that need it. Everything depends on funding." 


Johnston''s crew takes out a boat and performs a cross-section of the river, using a GPS antenna on top of the boat, along with a depth-finder. 


"All of this data -- X,Y, and Z coordinates -- feeds into a computer whose software analyzes it," he explained. 


Typically from January to March he prioritizes 120 places with a normal budget of $2 million-$3 million. (Surprised?) Of course, the budget varies from year to year. 


It is ironic the barges that use the waterway cause part of their own problem, kicking mud and silt into piles that build up over the months. Wave action caused by recreational craft in warm-weather months exacerbates the buildup. 




Summer inspections 


From June into September, Johnston inspects the dredge sites. 


"Inspecting is a totally different animal," he said. "We are there for safety purposes. Unfortunately, the barge workers often take our suggestions personally and make us out to be bad guys." 


Inspections require 12-hour shifts, and the intense work can be overly stressful. Deckhands, welders and electricians, about 20-30 total, come and go, while others are "stuck" on the boat for the duration. 




Autumn encroachments 


As Johnston settles in for the daily grind of inspections, September arrives and his duties change once again, just like the meandering river.  


"This is the time of year that I do encroachment studies," he said. "You would not believe the number of people who build on government property." 


Johnston and Chief of Navigation Allan Brewer told me some stories that were hard to believe. Too often people who have built on government property become disgruntled when Johnston''s crew produces proof they have illegally erected boathouses, docks, and even homes on government property, most of which was well-marked. 




No straight lines 


Brewer explained how it is a natural process for rivers to meander rather than flow in a straight line. 


"Man''s first inclination is to think that a straight line will ''fix'' the problem. But that''s simply not true," he said. 


Even though the Tenn-Tom Waterway Management Center is not the kind of business where consumers walk in and make a purchase, they deal with transportation issues that in essence make it possible for all of us to shop in a variety of stores.  


Individuals who work there, such as Johnston, remind us that our own work lives often resemble rivers, weaving in and out of the landscape, avoiding anything that looks like a straight line.


John Dorroh is a semi-retired high school science teacher, who writes a business column for The Dispatch.



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