STUART, Fla. — Boaters had a reason to celebrate Tuesday with the reopening of St. Lucie Lock and Dam for the first time since Jan. 4.
The lock had been closed for three months for extensive routine maintenance. It was the first time the lock had experienced a complete closure in 26 years.
Boaters had to get to one side of the lock or the other before the lock closed, wait three months to travel through it, or take the alternate route — a near 165-mile detour around the state.
Steve Reinert was the project engineer on the project.
"We had boats stacked up on both sides, ready to come through the lock and canal as soon as it opened at 7 a.m. this morning," Reinert said.
Boaters like Kirsti Harrison were among those who waited on the west side of the lock at the Indiantown Marina. But she knows many other boaters scrambled to travel east of the lock before it closed.
"Some people did. A lot of people did. But we're just kind of laid-back people, so we don't like to rush," Harrison laughed.
Each year, they travel through the lock and out to the Atlantic Ocean to get to the Bahamas.
Because of the delay in their trip, they got some needed work and projects finished on their sailboat.
About 30 manatees also had to wait to get through the lock, Reinert said. They were stuck upstream from the lock and unable to travel east. That posed a cold-weather crisis that crews had to quickly resolve.
"When the temperatures start to drop, the manatees normally flow eastward and find warmer waters because Lake Okeechobee and the canals get a little bit chilled when the temperatures drop," Reinert said. "They were basically trapped."
The Army Corps of Engineers, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and U.S Fish and Wildlife Service helped create a warm water spa for the manatees to help them stay safe during cold weather snaps.
Now, with the lock reopening, boaters are saving time.
"They would either have to go through the Keys or find another way to get across," Reinert said.
The lock system is also now rehabilitated to make sure it's safe and functional for boaters for years to come.
"I'm sure it's going to be a zoo here going back and forth," Harrison said. "It's going to be interesting here the next few days."