Strategic European lock marks 40 years

Iffezheim Lock points up French-German waterway co-operation (Photo-WSV) Iffezheim Lock points up French-German waterway co-operation (Photo-WSV)

One of the biggest and most efficient river locks in Europe - the Schleuse Iffezheim on the Rhine in Germany - is 40 years old this year and officials say that without it Switzerland and parts of France would be unreachable by waterway.

Claudia Thoma, a spokeswoman for Germany’s Waterways and Shipping Administration (WSV) in Bonn, told Maritime Journal the lock, on the upper Rhine some 50kms downstream from Strasbourg, was “of decisive importance for European goods transport. Without it Switzerland and large parts of the Alsace would not be reachable by waterway”, she said.

The Rhine rises in Switzerland and Alsace is a region of northeastern France on the Rhine River plain bordering Germany. German waterway (WSA) authorities in Freiburg and their French partners Navigation Strasbourg jointly operate the180km long upper Rhine stretch on which the lock stands - from Weil am Rhein on the border with Switzerland downstream to Au am Rhein near Karlsruhe.

The operation is “a good example of successful German-French co-operation”, Thoma said. And when the facility was opened to the public recently to mark its 40th birthday, 17,000 people visited it. “Just for once”, said WSA Freiburg chief Jörg Vogel, “a structure is the star of the show”.

The Schleuse Iffezheim was built in 1977 as a joint French-German project. It is a double lock facility with two usable 24m by 270m chambers of 12.5m lift. It allows more than a hundred commercial ships and barges a day to bypass the hydropower station on the French side of the river and is one of the most frequently used river locks in Germany.

More than 30,000 vessels carrying about 25 million tons of cargo use it every year, according to official statistics. The double lock is also open round the clock and has a water exchange rate of 165 m³ per chamber, achieving a rise or fall of 1.5 m per minute.

An unusual and spectacular aspect of Rhine river management has been going on below Iffezheim since the lock was built. The Rhine at this point has a strong tendency to erode its own bed. Unhindered erosion would lower the water level of the Rhine as well as the surrounding ground water and be detrimental to the river, the surrounding area and shipping.

To combat this, the German authorities have for 40 years now been adding sand-gravel mix to the river bed to dampen the erosive force of the current. The big quantities required led with time to local scarcity and increased costs but 28 million tons of gravel – enough to secure river bed ‘loading’ for 80-100 years have now finally been been secured from a flood protection project upstream at Weil Breisach.

By Tom Todd

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