A portion of the Red River in southwest Arkansas is being studied for potential development as a navigable waterway.
The US Army Corps of Engineers is looking at the potential construction of three locks and dams that would allow commercial barges to carry heavy materials like steel and rock on the Red River. The project would affect about a 110-mile stretch from Shreveport, Louisiana to nearby Texarkana and Fulton, Arkansas.
Katy Breaux is a Senior Project Manager with the Army Corps Vicksburg (Mississippi) District. She says the cost/benefit study has to show that adding navigational capacity to the river can provide an economic boost beyond the immediate region.
“Navigation benefits that the Corps is looking at [are] savings to the nation,” she says. “So if you're able to move rock on the river cheaper than you can move it with a train, then that savings to the nation is considered a navigation benefit.”
Breaux notes the Corps is also studying alternatives to the 3-lock and dam system, including a 2-lock and dam system.
This year, the Arkansas Legislature appropriated one million dollars to the Arkansas Red River Commission so it could hire the Army Corps to complete the study. Dan York is president of the Commission. He says a 3-lock and dam project would likely cost more than a billion dollars to build and would need federal funding. But he contends the potential impact of the project could be greater.
“I've lived on the Red River all my life and it's probably the greatest resource we have here in Southwest Arkansas, or one of the greatest ones. It's very neglected. It's very sediment-laden. It erodes the banks,” he says.
York is also chairman of the 4-state Red River Valley Association, with members in Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma. In advocating for the current project, he notes that it could connect with the J. Bennett Johnston waterway, which connects Shreveport to the Mississippi river. The project the Corps is now studying would potentially connect with that waterway, currently the site of 5 existing locks and dams.
In 2005, the Army Corps conducted study for a similar project that would have included 2 lock and dams, but found the benefits would not outweigh the costs. Army Corps headquarters never authorized the project to go ahead. But Arkansas Waterways Commission executive director Gene Higginbotham says a number of factors have changed since 2005. Some new industries have built facilities nearby, like Domtar paper in Ashdown. Interstate 49 now also extends through the region.
“From a logisitics standpoint, there's all sorts of opportunities...that navigation can actually assist,” he says.
Higginbotham notes that in addition to I-49, Interstate 30 also serves as a major thoroughfare and the Union Pacific and Kansas City Southern railroads both operate in the area. The John W. Turk coal power plant in Fulton went online in 2012. Two years earlier, the TexAmericas Center, an industrial complex in Texarkana, opened.
“You've got all these transportation pieces that fit into this really condensed area that can kind of make it a centerpoint for distribution and industry to kind of locate there,” he says.
But Katy Breaux of the Army Corps says the cost/benefit study has to show that the project could provide an economic boost beyond just the immediate region.
“We're saying if you put a factory in Texarkana, you're taking away from somewhere else in the nation, so it's kind of a wash as far as the federal interest is concerned,” she says.
Breax says the more the project can be proven to help the transportation costs on a national level, the better chance it has of getting authorized and ultimately funded.
The first meeting between the Army Corps, area economic developers and public officials was held December 9th. The meeting, called a charette, marked the beginning of the study process which is likely to take 12-18 months.
Higginbotham says a Red River project could also include hydropower and provide better irrigation to area farmlands. It could also provide flood control to an area that this year saw devastation from rising waters and failing levees.