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Shipping Loss Threatens Navigation Funds

Posted on June 23, 2016

By Bob Lenox, thenews star

A steady downturn in river traffic could threaten funding of operations along the Ouachita River.

The ton miles of barges and other shipping vessels that chart a course along the Ouachita add up to a bottom line that provides federal dollars for the Ouachita-Black Rivers Navigation Project. Such projects are expected to generate one million ton miles annually to avoid being deemed a low-use navigation system by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and at risk of greater funding cuts.

“Last year, we were below and it looks like we’re going to be below it this year,” Tensas Basin Levee District Executive Director John Stringer said.

A shipping shortage

In 2015, the project’s ton miles dropped to 945,000. Numbers for this year are on pace to again come up short of hitting the one million threshold. The lower figure resulted in the $11.5 million project request receiving just $8 million from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Stringer described how previous USACE studies impacted the project’s operation. In July 2012, the Corps’ Inland Marine Transportation Study of the 336 mile project used lockage criteria to determine how many hours those locks and dams would remain open.

The study led to a reduction of hours on four locks of Ouachita-Black. The Corps has since restored 24/7 operation on two lower locks in Columbia and Jonesville, while the Felsenthal and Hatcher locks operate 10 hours a day, five days a week.

USACE spokesperson Gregory Raimondo said the Corps doesn’t anticipate the lower 2 locks dropping from the present 24/7 service, however, the upper two locks could drop lower than current operation. He noted the level of service could increase proportional to industry usage.

Opting for alternatives

Though some operation of the Ouachita-Black was fully restored, a substantial number of commercial shippers left the waterway and opted for other means of transport. In 2010, the navigation system had 17 companies shipping on the Ouachita River. In 2015, that number was down to 5.

“During the reduction, shippers were being delayed anywhere from 2 to 5 hours – costing them money and they shied away from these channels,” Ouachita River Valley Association (ORVA) Executive Director Bill Hobgood said.

Companies like Cross Oil of Smackover, Ark. that transported product from 2009-2012 on the Ouachita switched to pipeline. Tetra Technologies, who shipped calcium chloride up the river to its plant in El Dorado between 2011 and 2014, opted for rail.

It’s a difficult scenario given funding for the navigation project is driven by commercial shipping on the rivers. Hobgood said shrinking funds have scaled back maintenance tasks, like dredging. ORVA has pushed strongly to get $2 million to adequately address dredging efforts of the waterway.

Dollar demand for dredging

For 2016, the Corps did not get the additional $2 million from OMB. Of the $8 million in funds, $1.2 million was allotted for dredging and only in high spots between the mouth of Black River where it flows into the Red and up the Black, and the Ouachita to Sterlington.

“They’re only going to dredge critical areas, because they don’t have that much money. “$1.2 million will only buy you about 25 days of operating a dredge, 24 hours a day,” Hobgood said.

Local officials make two annual trips to talk with the state’s congressional delegation about the project and make the case for funding. U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-Alto) said recent flooding “drained the resources that the Corps needs to maintain and dredge rivers, which are critical to waterway commerce.” Abraham said he’s working on legislation that would provide emergency funds to the Corps to replace what it has lost.

Critical stage

Stringer noted that if a navigation project loses funding, it could be placed into what is called ‘caretaker’ status. In that scenario, the Corps would open all the gates on the four locks and dams of the Ouachita and go back to what is called “regular run of the river conditions.”

During the dry season of the year (July-November), there would be no navigation. There could be little or no pool of water. In essence, there could be places where a person could walk across the river.

“We see that’s the direction it’s headed in and we need to do everything we can to support the project and keep it operational,” Stringer said.

Stringer believes the project is an economic engine for the economy. He pointed to spinoff projects as another concern of reduced operation of the navigation system’s locks.

Low pooling stages could occur that might affect numerous businesses and operations along the Ouachita. Water intake and discharge could present a challenge for a city’s water supply and industry along the river.

“Companies like Entergy and Graphics Packaging need water for production,” Stringer said. “You’d lose a source of water for industries along the river, three plants in Sterlington, Monroe for drinking water. So, if you lose that navigation pool, they lose use of this river and that would be catastrophic for this region.”

“Until we solve this funding dilemma, we can’t induce anymore industry and the industry we have is suffering if we don’t come up with solutions to solve this problem.” He said.

Source: thenews star

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