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There are a lot of money pits when it comes to the federal budget, but when I see one right in my backyard, it makes me want to scream. Crossing the Ouachita River at Calion and looking across at the new high bridge that's under construction makes my blood boil.

I guess if a guy and and his young son drive across the old bridge and look at the new bridge, the kid might ask, "Daddy, why is the new bridge so tall?" Dad would say, "Son, it's to let the barges travel under it."

And the kid would say, "What barges?"

And Dad would say, "Look, there's a blue heron!"

The Arkansas part of the Ouachita River Navigation System needs to be put to sleep, and the continuing waste of money and loss of quality fishing and hunting eliminated. My prospects for becoming governor are better than seeing a barge on the river. It is time to dismantle the last vestige of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' irresponsibility and return the river to its pre-1960s condition.

The Corps put in new Thatcher locks in the 1960s to raise the water level to improve the conditions for barge traffic. It's another Field of Dreams, the movie about a farmer who built a baseball field in an Iowa cornfield. The baseball players did come. They were spirits of "Shoeless" Joe, etc.

I guess the barge folks are looking for long-dead Captain Tate to show up in the Delta Queen. The new locks didn't do it, and the proposed bend cut is dead, so what's next?

The new locks did raise the water level and flooded some 65,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forest, and Pete Wilson's Slough and Wildcat Lake, formerly the best fishing in the mid-South, became part of a big new Arkansas lake, now full of dead trees and moss.

The original plan was to create a green tree reservoir by dropping the water level down in the summer to preserve the hardwood trees and prevent moss from growing out of control. That was not done, and now the dead trees and mossy water are a testament to bad waterway management.

Currently, the fishery is only a sliver of what it once was, with dead trees and moss creating a sub-par fishing experience. Why not return the river to a recreational level that's far superior to what we have now?

The Arkansas Waterways Commission should remove the Ouachita River from the list of Arkansas navigable streams and call for a public meeting to discuss the best and highest use of the river. The Corps of Engineers, without any prospects of having barge traffic on the river and without any money in the federal budget for work on the river, is making "walk-away" comments, and the citizens of south Arkansas should get involved to be sure the river and surrounding wetlands and lakes are left in the best shape possible.

In order to maintain stable water levels, a Corps employee could monitor the river, and if needed could set the discharge to accommodate the desired flow rate. Surely this is no more than a one-day-a-month job.

But what about the feasibility study made by the Corps? Those folks must moonlight for Walt Disney. The imagination they have when it comes to expected river traffic makes a flying carpet seem old hat. How can anyone sit down and calculate benefits expected from barge traffic when the last 15 years of actual traffic has resulted in a massive hemorrhage of money?

The Corps refuses to dredge the nine-foot channel, and until there are prospects for new barge traffic, it won't be dredged. There is not one company that will commit to put a barge on the river, so it is time to ensure the river will be used for recreational activities.

Removing the river from its use as a navigable stream, and having it used primarily for recreational purposes will accomplish several things:

  1. It will save millions of dollars by stopping any future dredging of the river, and reduce personnel that manage the lock and dam.
  2. It will create the best fishing in the Mid-South and maybe the nation. When the flooded 65,000 acres are reduced back to pre-1960s levels, the millions of fish present will be concentrated in the original river, Wildcat Lake, and Pete Wilson's Slough. The fishing will be phenomenal.
  3. The return of prime bottomland hardwood as habitat for deer, bear, and turkey will greatly add to the hunting in the area.
  4. The moss will disappear.
  5. The reduction in pool level will not impact the existing pipelines that carry wastewater into the river since their permits are based on river flow. The return to pre-1960s water levels will not affect the river's flow.

This whole thing would be a joke if the millions of dollars already spent dredging and putting in the new locks were coming from the folks that promoted it. But they haven't put up a cent, nor can they produce one user for the river system.

Our choices are either continue to waste money and screw up the river, or put our foot down and demand some fiscal and environmental responsibility. It's not that we don't need funding for the river--we do--but we need it for new boat ramps, marinas, and other facilities.

If we had spent 10 percent of the money that has been wasted on the river for tourism promotion, imagine the impact it would have on south Arkansas.

We have a wonderful resource in the Ouachita River. Our neglect in promotion and development of this resource is almost disgraceful. We should invest our limited funds to develop the river as one of the premier fishing and recreation areas in the South.

Email Richard Mason at richard@gibraltarenergy.com.

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