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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tamed Waterway Waits for Boom

SHREVEPORT, Louisiana -- The Red River used to wander around its valley like an unsupervised child, drifting this way and doubling back that way, looping and meandering and sometimes raising hell. The old New Orleans Crescent described it as a kind of perpetual motion machine, "a very whimsical and uncertain river," with sandbars appearing out of nowhere and banks eroding overnight. Still, the irascible Red had its charms. "In point of beauty and fertility," the explorer Peter Custis wrote in 1806, "there is not its equal in America, nay in the world."

The Red is better behaved now. The Army Corps of Engineers has tamed it for barge traffic, the latest mega-project in its monumental crusade to sculpt the United States' unruly natural waterways into placid liquid highways. On the Red, the corps built five massive dams and 150 jutting dikes, armored quick-to-crumble riverbanks with thousands of tons of sturdy rock revetments and sliced off 80 kilometers of serpentine river bends. For $2 billion, it reinvented the rambling, treacherous river as a ruler-straight, barge-friendly canal.

The domestication of the Red made Shreveport an actual port for the first time since the steamboat era, and it was supposed to spark the economic rebirth of rural northwestern Louisiana. The corps predicted that 15,000 new barge-related jobs would go with the flow. Former Senator J. Bennett Johnston, the project's godfather in Congress, vowed that its "positive impact will be unmatched by any other endeavor in state history."

But five years after this modern Louisiana Purchase, there's a bit of a problem - there are hardly any barges on the river.

According to the corps' own data, the Red's government-issue navigation channel has attracted almost no new barge traffic - except for barges hauling construction materials for the new channel. The Red still carries less than 0.1 percent of the commercial traffic on the United States' government-run river transport system - even though it receives a remarkable 3.4 percent of the system's federal funds.

"We only see a barge every couple of days or so," said Joe Franklin, the work-deprived manager of the Joe D. Waggoner Lock and Dam, one of four Red River dams named after powerful former congressmen who helped fund the project. "It gets kind of boring up here. You sure get a lot of time to think."

In fact, this barge-deficiency syndrome can be found throughout what Washington calls the inland waterways system, the nation's 17,600-kilometer network of federally manufactured and subsidized river navigation channels.

Over the last century, Congress has given the corps more than $100 billion in 1999 dollars to straitjacket the United States' rivers for navigation. The projects have destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands once frequented by now-endangered species. The promised trade-off was bumper-to-bumper barges, hauling vast loads of grain and coal and oil, saving money for farmers and factories and consumers, fueling economic activity in long-ignored rural backwaters.

Usually, though, the barges haven't come. On most of the 29 corps-constructed waterways, traffic has never approached the rosy projections used to justify the fancy engineering.

The inland waterways system floats 8 percent of the nation's freight, a modest but vital slice of the U.S. economy, amounting to630 million tons of annual barge traffic with a value of $188 billion. But more than 90 percent of that traffic is carried on just four waterways: the Mississippi, Ohio and Illinois rivers and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. Even Corps officials concede that navigation has been a disappointment on most of the other inland arteries.