A few weeks back, the Monroe newspaper ran a series of articles outlining the rich environmental heritage and economic value of the Ouachita River. Of course, most of it hinged on commercial value of the river and the efforts of the Ouachita River Valley Association to keep the river open for commerce.
The main group that focuses on commerce on the river — the Ouachita River Valley Authority — is having its annual meeting at the West Monroe Convention Center this Tuesday and Wednesday. Everyone who has an interest in the river is welcome. Speakers will include U.S. Sen. David Vitter, 5th District U.S. Rep. Vance McAllister, Gen. Duke DeLuca, commander of the Mississippi Valley Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Nature Conservancy’s Keith Ouchley. Ouchley will speak about the floodplain reconstruction project on Mollicy Farms, which is an awesome project trying to restore a huge part of the river’s ecosystem that has been lost for dozens of years due to clearing for agriculture.
ORVA certainly has a job to do and commercial navigation on the river is important. Right now their main fight is to try and keep river locks and dams open 24/7 so shippers that do use the river can do so without any delays. But for most of us, the treasure of the Ouachita River isn’t in slow-moving barges. It’s in natural beauty, water resources and the recreational ecosystem it provides this region. The recent newspaper series didn’t mention it, but not too long ago, those were in serious jeopardy. One man’s meandering scenic river is another man’s boat channel.
Most folks probably don’t remember 35 years ago when the Ouachita River almost became a ditch. I was one of six reporters who helped cover the story and put out a special section in the “News Star World” on Sunday, October 18, 1980 called “The Ouachita: Unbending a river uncorks a controversy”.
Indeed it did.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had designed a plan to “widen” 30 bends in the Ouachita River and make 54 “bendway cuts” to straighten the river and enhance commerce once the Felsenthal and Calion locks in Arkansas were completed. Nobody knew much about it, but after some digging, newspaper reporter Jane Dagata and myself got our hands on a copy of the “confidential” plan. It was mind boggling. If you’ve ever seen Bayou Boeuf, can you picture the Ouachita River as a straightened, muddy ditch?
We made an appointment with the Colonel in charge of the Vicksburg District of the Corps to discuss the Ouachita River and plans for navigation. After about 20 minutes of rather mundane questions, I point blank asked him about the 30 bendway widenings and 54 bendway cuts. He acted as though he didn’t know anything about that.
When we showed him a copy of the detailed plan and report (with his name on it), he looked at us with a blank stare, then appeared to get mad and suddenly had to leave and go to another meeting. Before we even got back to the office, several high-powered official type folks had phoned the owners and management of the newspaper trying to squash the story. They said no. Two months later after we broke the news of the planned project and there was a public outcry, the Colonel had a new job at a Corps District Office somewhere in California.
As a good packrat will do, I still have some of those old documents. While the river’s potential value as a shipping channel had been documented, the report admitted, “Extending navigation on the Ouachita River would have significant environmental impacts which must be determined.”
Kind of like Obamacare, this was “Ouachitacare” — We’ll do it and then determine how bad it is after we do it.
The report also stated “impacts will include high suspended solid concentrations and sedimentation rates, causing adverse effects…reduced survival of fish eggs and fry and a reduction n number and kinds of bottom organisms.”
And finally, the nail in the coffin, “The bendway cutoffs will be the most damaging from an esthetic point of view”. Can you say “ditch”?
I’ll probably make some old “friends” mad by bringing this back up, but folks today need to look at the river and realize this project was just a few signatures and a few months away from being funded and unstoppable. Hundreds spoke up. Elected officials woke up. The project was stopped.
We’ll have more about the river and it’s history in this space after the ORVA meeting next week.