The Treasure of the Ouachita River
(Second in a four-part series this week)
One man’s meandering scenic river is another man’s boat channel. Most folks probably don’t remember 40 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 of our own, 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. Thankfully, the owners said no (Editor’s Note: that was back in the day when journalism still mattered). Later after we finished our investigation of facts and 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 pack rat 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, but this was “Ouachitacare” — the approach was “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.
In case you missed it, Part 1 from yesterday: