John Stringer, Executive Director of The Tenses Basin Levee District says the Ouachita - Black River System is facing challenges. He says the river systems lack of full funding places the Ouachita River in peril and says the underfunded river system could be abandoned under a worst case scenario.
Stringer says, “It can happen and you know if it does happen, I’ve always said it will be a catastrophe for our region.”
The lack of commercial river traffic is the only factor used in determining the Ouachita River’s future. Rivers with under 1,000,000 tons of cargo are placed into a low use category. If government money becomes scarce we could all feel the effects.
Stringer says the system has not been maintained and shippers are leery of its future.
“When you don’t dredge a river you start damaging equipment and that's what happened to Cross Oil in Smackover, Arkansas. They used the Ouachita River for transport and were one of the river’s largest users. Eventually they pulled off the river because they were damaging equipment trying to get to the refinery in Smackover.”
The system is gone down from 17 to 4 shippers over the last few years and one of the biggest users is now moving its products through pipelines.
Entergy uses the river for power production at its plants in Sterlington and Monroe. The City of Monroe and other communities depend on the Ouachita for drinking water. Georgia Pacific in Crossett, Arkansas also depends on the river for water used in their mill and many area farmers take water from the river to irrigate crops.
Water usage is just one factor. He explains that many communities and plants discharge their waste water into the river.
He explained, “You couldn't discharge into river, sewer or anything else.”
Hunters and boaters may also have issues if the water levels fall. Stringer says all the boat ramps along the Ouachita would be out of the water.
Stringer shows me a picture taken from the Endom Bridge in the early 1900’s before the Ouachita was dammed. The river is mostly gone and only about a quarter of its current width. Its covered with huge sand bars running through downtown Monroe.
Stringer says “You will lose 23 feet of water level from pool stage (20 feet) in Monroe, You’ll go a level of -3 feet and the river will be a little meandering stream going through here.”
Historically the Ouachita River could be crossed in many places just by walking across. Lazarre Point was a crossing used my many to move cattle across the river in the dry season. During the summer dry months the river would be almost useless for any boating because it was only 1 or 2 feet deep.
The water levels created by the dams in the Ouachita and Black also effect many tributaries. Stringer says The Darbonne, Beouf, Tensas, Bartholomew and Bayou Macon would nearly dry up if the river returned to its natural state. He says the navigation project is like a stopper holding water throughout North Louisiana.
A new economic impact study is currently taking place at the University of Louisiana Monroe. The study will be used to try to convince the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that although commercial traffic is low, maintaining a pool stage on the river is critical to the health of the region.
“We've been asked to evaluate the commercial value of the Ouachita River, particularly the navigable portions of the Ouachita River,” says Dr. Robert Eisenstadt.
Eisenstadt and a team of ULM researchers will try to put a dollar value on the Ouachita – Black River System and take a look at all areas of use.
That study should be done by October and hopefully help the Corps of Engineers see a fuller picture of the catastrophic effects of giving up on the Ouachita.