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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Army Engineers Force U.S. Rivers Into Service

Over the last century, the U.S. Congress has given the Army Corps of Engineers more than $100 billion to straitjacket America's rivers for navigation with the promised trade-off being bumper-to-bumper barges fueling explosions of economic activity in long-ignored rural backwaters. Usually, though, the barges haven't come, reports Michael Grunwald of The Washington Post.

CLARENDON, Arkansas - The White River winds through a magical expanse of bottomland hardwoods, one of the last remnants of the 9.6 million-hectare forest that once blanketed the entire Mississippi Valley. William Faulkner dubbed this basin the Big Woods, "bigger and older than any recorded document." Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has called it America's Amazon.

Now, this fading river town is battling to protect the oak, ash and sweet gum of the Big Woods from the dikes, dredges and jetties of the Army Corps of Engineers. The corps is studying a plan to expand navigation on the White, a $50 million effort to attract economic development to rural towns like Clarendon, Arkansas, by deepeningthe river's barge channel. But Clarendon is saying no. At a town meeting to discuss the project, the vote was a stunning 74 to 2 against.

"Nobody needs economic development more than we do, but this isn't the way to get it," says Clarendon Mayor Don Boshers. "All over America, the corps has raped the countryside to make way for barges that don't even come. We're not going to let that happen here."

The nation's federally managed water transportation system is just about complete, but most of its bargeways have been disappointments. Still, there are two expansions in the works. A proposed extension of the Red River navigation channel from Shreveport, Louisiana, up to Index, Arkansas, is years away from a decision. But the corps' plan to build 119 wing dikes on the White is an imminent possibility.

The plan has some support in depressed Arkansas communities like Augusta and Newport. But the equally depressed downriver towns of Clarendon and Brinkley have chosen to fight - because they believe their economic futures depend on a healthy river.

This is the new twist of the war over waterways: It's not just businessmen versus environmentalists anymore. Wildlife-related recreation is now a billion-dollar industry in Arkansas. The White flows through two national wildlife refuges that receive 280,000 visitors a year.

"They talk about all the economic benefits of those barges, but that's all questionable,'' says Perry Lee, the local banker. "The river is real. We can't kill that golden goose."

Supporters of the project can hardly believe the furor. For years, Congress and the corps have passed one navigation project after another, shelling out billions of dollars, with little attention to environmental impact.

Boosters believe the wingdikes will increase traffic on the river tenfold, converting the White from an underused waterway into a bustling full-time river of commerce. They predict that farmers hurting from low prices will save 10 cents per bushel shipping soybeans by water instead of highway, and new factories will flock to depressed riverside towns.

The argument is simple: Don't blame the White for the boondoggles of yore.

"We're trying to get the word out: We're not like those other projects," says Harvey Joe Sanner, an outspoken farm activist who runs the pro-barge White River Valley Association. "We agree, if this is bad for the environment, forget about it. But it won't be."

That's not what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service thinks. It's predicting a disaster.

The Lower White is considered one of America's best-kept natural secrets, the last pristine swath of the Mississippi's alluvial floodplain. The key to the whole ecosystem is floods, which carry fish to their spawning grounds and expose invertebrates for them to eat.

On rivers like the Missouri, wingdikes have disrupted those natural ebbs and flows, unhinging the local food chain. On the White, the lower half of the channel would flow through national wildlife refuges, and the Fish and Wildlife officials running those refuges believe history will repeat itself.

"This isn't brain surgery," says Larry Mallard, the director of the White River refuge. "If you mess with the connectivity of the system, you're going to inflict some incredible damage."

Navigation boosters say the Fish and Wildlife Service just wants to depopulate and reforest the area. But even Army Corps head Joseph Westphal says he discovered the need to "assess and reassess what we're doing there."

"We pay to destroy precious natural resources. Then, we pay to fix it down the road," warns Steve Ellis, director of water resources for Taxpayers for Common Sense. "Well, here's one last chance to say no in the first place."

Yet the feasibility study continues, with a decision expected this spring. And the channelization vision is the same as it always has been: If we build it, economic development will come.

"We all love hunting and fishing, but we've got to think about jobs," says Augusta Mayor Thomas Huie, a former highway engineer. "If this creates one job, I'm for it 100 percent."