If the U.S. Corps of Engineers quits maintaining the Ouachita River, commercial shipments and recreation and industrial discharges among other river uses could be at stake.
That's the consensus that's developed among local officials recently in light of news the Office of Management and Budget might revise its criteria for appropriating federal funding for maintaining the Ouachita River in Arkansas and Louisiana — operation and maintenance that's needed to make the river navigable.
Part of the criteria supporting the U.S. Corps of Engineers' operation of locks and dams as well as dredging of the Ouachita-Black Rivers Navigation Project is tonnage, which has fallen in recent years because of dips in federal funding.
“The funding on the Ouachita River is in a death spiral,” said Ouachita Parish Police Juror Walt Caldwell before recommending the parish governing body publicly support federal financial support for a year-round commercial navigation system during its Aug. 15 meeting. “The U.S. Corps of Engineers has dropped the operation of some dams and locks, and when that happens, tonnage falls, and when tonnage falls, operation and maintenance stops, and so we're in this cascading loss.”
Sue Nicholson, president of the Monroe Chamber of Commerce, echoed a similar concern.
“As many of you, funding for the Corps of Engineers for Ouachita River Maintenance has been cut year after year,” she wrote in an email last week. “Each time it is cut, we lose services, which leads to reduced tonnage being shipped on the river. Each time we lose tonnage, we lose more services. It is a vicious cycle. Currently, the annual tonnage is low enough that we are afraid the Corps will just open the locks and dams and stop maintaining the river.”
Nicholson's email announced a meeting held Wednesday with John Stringer, executive director of the Tensas Basin Levee District, which was hosted by the chamber and the Ouachita Business Alliance.
John Jones, CenturyLink's senior vice president of policy and government relations, responded to Nicholson's concerns by suggesting the role the Ouachita River could play if trade begins with Cuba and other countries seeking agricultural exports from Louisiana.
“If all goes as planned, literally any goods or commodities produced North of us for export to Cuba will have to travel down the Mississippi to reach New Orleans,” Jones wrote. “The Ouachita, Black and other rivers will likely also see increased traffic.”
Diminished federal funding for commercial navigation on the Ouachita River could have numerous consequences, officials believe.
“If this happens, it will impact and likely stop commercial shipments on the Ouachita,” Nicholson wrote. “Our Ouachita Parish Port will be useless. In addition, our industries that have discharged into the river will no longer be able to do that. Finding an alternate solution for discharge is cost prohibitive. In addition, and more seriously, the Ouachita River provides a back-up source of water for the City of Monroe.”
Caldwell said the failure to dredge the river or control bank erosion also could lead to poor plant growth, close use of the river for recreation or hamper drinking water access or the use of the river for industrial and sewer discharge. It's also a habitat for fish and wildlife and can reduce flood damage, if maintained.
“If the Ouachita River falls to a certain level, you can't do any of that any more,” he said.