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A River in the Red
Channel Was Tamed for Barges That Never Came

By Michael Grunwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2000; Page A01

SHREVEPORT, La.—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 megaproject in its monumental crusade to sculpt America's 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 50 miles of serpentine riverbends. 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 (D-La.), 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's 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 America's 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," says 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 11,000-mile network of federally manufactured and subsidized river navigation channels. The Red now has many equals in America.

Over the last century, Congress has given the Corps more than $100 billion in 1999 dollars to straitjacket America's rivers for navigation. The projects have destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands, mucking up countless bayous, oxbows, sloughs and side channels once frequented by now-endangered species. The promised tradeoff was bumper-to-bumper barges, hauling vast loads of grain and coal and oil, saving money for farmers and factories and consumers, fueling explosions of 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 American economy, amounting to 630 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, from the Alabama-Coosa to the Atlantic Intracoastal, from the Kaskaskia to the Kentucky, from the Black to the White to the Red.

"There's no question that some of these projects have not panned out the way people expected," says Joseph Westphal, the head of the Army Corps of Engineers. "There are parts of this system that are very economical. And there are parts of this system that are not."

To say the least. A forthcoming Environmental Defense Fund study shows that 18 of the system's 29 river segments move less than 3 percent of its commerce while consuming more than 30 percent of its costs. The channelized Pearl River in Alabama and Mississippi carried one barge in 1997. And 15 years after the Corps dammed, diked and dredged the Ouachita River up to Camden, Ark., the publicly financed Port of Camden has yet to dock its first barge.

No one really set out to build this generously subsidized transportation network; unlike interstate highways or railroads, the nation's waterways were never systematically planned or pruned. The system is, instead, a child of Washington politics. Big public works projects are a time-honored way for congressmen to bring jobs and contracts home to their districts, and big water projects seem to enjoy a special exemption from normal legislative scrutiny. They are anathema to taxpayer activists and green groups; President Clinton's environmental officials have criticized several waterways, and earlier administrations often tried to derail local projects. But a pork-packed water bill now passes through the House and Senate every two years, and Clinton's lone attempt to shrink subsidies for the system went nowhere.

After all, vote-hungry politicians are not the only players who take an interest in inland waterways. Powerful barge interests have pull on Capitol Hill; the industry is dominated by such Washington-savvy conglomerates as CSX, Archer Daniels Midland, ConAgra and Cargill, well-known shippers of campaign cash as well as cargo. Lobbyists for farm bureaus, power plants, steelmakers and other industries eager for cheap freight options have pushed as well.

The result is a scattershot system that costs over $700 million a year to operate, maintain and renovate, with the barge industry covering only about one-eighth of the cost. In contrast, the trucking industry pays a much larger percentage of the nation's highway costs through gas taxes, and railroads maintain their own right of ways without federal help.

"[Most barge channels] came into existence less because of sound economic analysis than because of economic boosterism and sheer porkbarrel politics," concludes the Environmental Defense Fund report on "low-volume" waterways. "The primary 'compensation' for the enormous environmental damage is the 'opportunity' for federal taxpayers to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars to maintain a few barges on these rivers."

The Army Corps of Engineers, a civilian-dominated public works agency with a military pedigree and a long history of reengineering the American landscape, gets its marching orders from Congress. But critics say it has also helped expand the navigation system through its repeatedly inflated predictions of barge traffic. In the 1930s, the Corps forecast 12 million annual tons of commodity movements on the Missouri, then carved the undulating river of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark into a narrow ditch. Today, the Missouri carries 1.8 million tons. The Corps was still thinking big in the 1980s, when it predicted its $2 billion Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway project in Alabama and Mississippi would carry 27 million tons in its first year. That estimate was 25.3 million tons too high.

"The Mississippi is obviously an important waterway for barges, and so is the Ohio. No question," says Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who has become the nation's most prominent critic of dams and other river-molding structures. "But you look at the others, and the economics just don't justify what's been done to them. . . . It's an absolute crime."

The Congressional Budget Office has called barges America's most heavily subsidized form of freight transport--"except the space shuttle, maybe," one environmentalist grouses--but they still have great difficulty competing with trucks and trains. The problems are clear: Barges are 5-mile-an-hour anachronisms in a just-in-time economy. Rivers can freeze, flood or run low. And shippers have to load products onto trucks or trains just to get them to barges, unless they happen to be located directly on a river.

On many rivers, to be sure, these navigation megaprojects have produced spinoff benefits: flood control, drinking water, hydropower, recreational opportunities. On the Red River, for example, the new navigation pool is attracting more than 1 million annual boaters, swimmers, water-skiers and anglers to what is now essentially a 236-mile-long, 200-foot-wide lake; the fishing is so good that national tournaments are being held here for the first time.

So the criticism is still blasphemy to a public-works true believer like Johnston, once the chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Resources Committee and now a rainmaking Washington lobbyist. He knows the Red River project has always had skeptics. Five consecutive presidential administrations balked at funding it. In 1980, an environmental coalition said it had "one of the most flimsy cost justifications of any Corps of Engineers project." But Johnston always managed to ram it into the budget anyway. And even though only a few hundred of the expected 15,000 jobs have materialized so far, he's glad he did.

"I was very determined to muscle it through," Johnston recalls. "You've got to give it time. These projects don't blossom overnight."

The Red River Waterway is not the most expensive, the most political or the most disappointing of the navigation bonanzas; it is just the most recent. Still, this $2 billion navigation project with almost no navigation offers a fairly vivid glimpse of America's underperforming waterways--especially now that the Corps is studying a proposed extension of the new Red River navigation channel all the way up to Index, Ark.

That multi-dam extension could cost taxpayers an additional $1.5 billion. And the channel already has a new name: The J. Bennett Johnston Waterway.

Navigation's Rough Ride

The Red River starts its rambling journey in the arid plains of New Mexico, heads east to divide Texas from Oklahoma, swerves down through southwestern Arkansas, then southeast through Louisiana's farm belt toward the Mississippi River. Like most American rivers, it has been used for navigation for centuries, first by Caddo Indians on hollowed-out pirogues over a millennium ago, later by Spanish, French and American pioneers on keelboats, flatboats and rafts. In truth, though, navigation on the Red has traditionally had a rough ride.

For years, the culprit was an immense natural logjam known as the Great Raft, a spectacular 100-mile blockade in central Louisiana formed by thousands of fallen cedars and cypresses. In the 1830s, the Great Raft attracted the attention of Capt. Henry Miller Shreve, a top official with the Army Corps of Engineers. Shreve was fascinated by the problem of navigation on the Red--so fascinated that he dispatched a young deputy named Robert E. Lee to oversee much of his work on the Mississippi--and ultimately addressed it by inventing a steam-powered "snagboat" to yank logs out of the raft.

Shreve followed a now-familiar path: He persuaded Congress to cough up $300,000. The money helped Shreve clear the way for regular steamboats to travel up the Red, and helped create a national reputation for the Corps as an agency of navigation wizards. It also moved the region's commercial epicenter upriver to a brand new town--christened Shreveport.

There was a mild resurgence of commerce on the Red over the next half-century, but with its marauding currents and ship-sinking shoals, the river was never ideal for travel. So the traffic virtually disappeared when the Vicksburg, Shreveport and Pacific Railroad was completed in 1885. In fact, even on less volatile rivers, commerce was fading fast; steamboats just couldn't compete with the size, speed, and convenience of freight trains.

That could have been the end of the story of navigation on the Red, and on most of America's rivers. But it wasn't. If rivers could not compete naturally, politicians eager for public works projects in their districts were determined to make them compete artificially.

On the Red, the political crusade for a new bargeway bore its first fruit in 1945, when Sen. John H. Overton (D-La.) won approval for the Corps to dig a new navigation canal parallel to the river. The idea went nowhere--it even had critics within Louisiana--but it came in handy in 1968, when then-Sen. Russell Long (D-La.) amended Overton's language to authorize the five-dam project on the Red itself, a bit of legislative legerdemain that just happened to bypass the usual public hearing process. "In Washington, you have to beat the bureaucrats at their own game," Long said at the time.

Then it was mostly a matter of finding money, and even though Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton all declined to fund the project in various budgets, they were no match for Louisiana's delegation in Washington. Long, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, personally persuaded Jimmy Carter to take the project off a hit list. He came to the rescue again when the project--then estimated at only $500 million--nevertheless flunked a Corps cost-benefit analysis. The project had equally staunch defenders on other key committees: Rep. Joe D. Waggoner Jr. (D-La.) on House Ways and Means, Rep. Lindy Claiborne Boggs (D-La.) on House Appropriations.

Today, there are dams on the Red named for Overton, Long, Waggoner and Boggs; the fifth dam remains unnamed, because officials have yet to agree on a suitable Louisiana politician. This is the way things work on the inland waterways system, which is clogged with dams named for such heavyweights as former representatives Tom Bevill (D-Ala.), G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery (D-Miss.), and Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.) and senators Howell Heflin (D-Ala.) and Robert S. Kerr (D-Okla.), as well as the current king of public works, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.). But it is no coincidence that the entire Red River waterway was named for Johnston, whose committee oversaw all Corps projects.

In more collegial times, Long had helped arrange a deal with power brokers from other states, pledging Louisiana's support for such projects as the Tenn-Tom--a 10-dam debacle--in exchange for their support for the Red. In more recent years, though, Johnston had to open the spigot himself, subtly inserting language into budget bills that not only let the project continue, but forced the Corps to speed up and finish it before his retirement in 1996.

"By the time it was our turn, most of the old bulls from the other states were gone, and there was a lot less enthusiasm for these projects after what happened with the Tenn-Tom," Johnston says. "But I was the chairman. I had the jurisdiction. . . . I wasn't going to let Louisiana get left behind."

At the time, Shreveport's oil industry was flagging, employers such as AT&T and General Motors were downsizing, and unemployment was in double digits. The river was supposed to change everything. Boosters predicted over $100 million in annual economic benefits. Johnston promised "a whole new life for the Red River Valley."

"They were selling a dream; it was a very conscious sell," says Shreveport lawyer Murray Lloyd, a local Sierra Club activist. "Sure, the dream was a boondoggle. But nobody around here cared about that. It was our boondoggle. It wasn't like we had to pay for it."

Commerce's Slow Start

In a perverse way, the dream came true.

Shreveport is a working port again for the first time in a century, and the economy is humming. Unemployment is down around 4 percent. Development has returned to the riverfront. A snazzy convention center is in the works; a modern "multicultural center" is coming soon.

The catch is that the local boomlet has nothing to do with the new port. Shreveport is hot because of six flashy new riverboat casinos, which have brought in 10,000 jobs and 12 million annual visitors, creating the nation's No. 3 gaming destination in just five years. Navigation got started here at just about the same time, but even its hard-core boosters concede their vision of a barge boom has yet to materialize.

"Obviously, the navigation piece has been slow so far," says Richard Brontoli, a former Corps manager who runs the Shreveport-based Red River Valley Association, the primary lobby for navigation on the Red for the last 75 years. "We've got to be patient."

Very patient. A new study by University of Maryland transportation economist Robert Stearns found that as of 1997, the waterway's volume of commercial traffic was only about 150,000 tons--about one twenty-fifth the predicted haul for that year. Stearns, another former Corps official, describes the waterway as "a makework project."

Still, the Red's boosters insist it is on the verge of a barge explosion. Their prime evidence is the Port of Shreveport-Bossier; after spending $80 million in public funds, it did see more barges this year, mostly carrying lube oil and fertilizer. Port Director John Holt Jr. is trying to cut a deal to send millions of tons of chicken feed along the Red, and he says he would like to see salt, timber and even sewage sludge moving here, too.

"You can't blame us for the failed projects of the past; we're not going to repeat their mistakes," Holt says. "People used to build these waterways and say, hey, we're here, the business will come. Not us. We're going to go out and find business. You can bet on it."

But the Stearns report suggests that Shreveport's roulette wheels would be safer bets. It shows that even if commerce on the Red magically doubles every year for the next five years, it would fall far short of the long-term Corps projections of 8 million tons a year--unless it continues to grow at twice the Corps's "high-growth scenario." In other words, the study says, the fortune-telling that justified the project is "simply not plausible."

And the price tag is still rising. The Corps spends $8 million a year dredging the Red, stabilizing its banks and staffing its locks 24 hours a day. It is shoveling out an additional $21 million a year on visitor centers and other construction flourishes.

"The fact is, money like that is going to be spent no matter what happens to the Red River," Holt says with a sheepish grin. "Everyone knows that if we don't get it, it gets spent on a boondoggle somewhere else. It might as well get spent here."

Environment Was Not In the Plan

Clee-clee-clee! Clee-clee-clee!

"Well how about that?" chirps Paul Dickson, crouching in the reeds of his picturesque Red River duck blind. "That's a semipalmated plover! He should be in South America by now!"

Dickson is writing a book about the birds of the Red--he has recorded more than 250 species on the river--and 6 a.m. is his busy time. He notes the high-pitched chatter of the marsh wren, the nasal honks of the white ibis, the rusty-hinge squeaks of red-wing blackbirds roosting in nearby cattails. He points out a squadron of American coots, low-flying waterfowl that seem to sprint along the rivertop as if they're being chased by Wile E. Coyote.

Quack-quack! Quack-quack! Bang!

Dickson lowers his shotgun and smiles at the leaden sky. "That was a mallard."

Lots of outdoorsy types hang out on the Red, but not many of them know its ebbs and eddies as well as the boyish Dickson, who runs a wholesale drug business when he isn't watching (and shooting) birds on the river. His grandfather founded the navigation-obsessed Red River Valley Association, but Dickson's main concern is wildlife, especially the kingfishers, double-crested cormorants and other feathered characters of his book. So far, less than 1 percent of the Red River navigation project's funding has been for environmental mitigation, but Dickson and his brother Skipper are pushing Congress to create a 70,000-acre refuge here.

"Nobody's been thinking about the wildlife," Dickson says. "We know this was a navigation project. We just want to make sure there's something in it for the environment, too."

Even Corps officials acknowledge that on many rivers--especially rivers tamed before the environmental movement began gaining influence several decades ago--their navigation projects were disastrous to wildlife. Natural rivers, after all, are turbulent and complex. They rise and flood in the spring, then run low in the summer. They are shallow in some areas, deep in others. They are always in motion. All that action fosters biodiversity; different species like different parts of the river in different seasons.

Navigable rivers, on the other hand, must be calm, simple, static. Barges need nine feet of water, always, with no hidden sandbars or sharp turns. So the Corps has manhandled rivers into narrow, straight, stable channels, suppressing their instinctual wanderlust. These changes can set off food chain reactions: revetments stop bank erosion, reducing the organic material in the water, hurting aquatic plants that need organic material, insects that eat aquatic plants, small fish that eat insects, big fish that eat small fish, and so on.

This is not evident on the Red--yet. In fact, Dickson has seen black-necked stilts and brown pelicans return to the river since the dams were completed, while endangered least terns have begun to nest on sandbars forming behind the new wingdikes. And birds are not the only species flocking to the Red.

This used to be a lousy river for recreation--a torrent of current that propelled logs downstream like torpedos in spring, a muddy trickle you could walk across without getting your shorts wet in summer--but annual visits have doubled since 1994. One of the visitors caught a state-record 66-pound catfish last year, and a recent Red River bass-fishing tournament set national records.

Environmentalists who have studied other Corps projects do not expect this honeymoon to last. They warn that interrupting the once-rapid flow of the Red may allow toxic chemicals to build up in its navigation pools; fish in the nearby Ouachita have developed unsafe mercury levels since its dams were completed in 1985. They point out that new structures always attract fish for a while; fishermen might not be so ecstatic in a few years, they grumble, when their side-channel fishing holes have been silted in for good.

As Dickson guides his powerboat into a swampy backwater, cluttered with marsh reeds and rotting logs, he explains that the Red's heavy silt load--five times the murky Mississippi's--is already filling in wetlands outside the main navigation channel.

"The river is filling in so fast; pretty soon, this great little backwater will be nothing but a mud flat," Dickson says. "That's what happens when you turn rivers into ditches."

Of course, no one is sure what will happen to the ecology of the channel. But the Corps may not wait to find out. It just launched a $5 million study of a brand new project to extend navigation 135 miles beyond Shreveport, up to the poultry region around Index, Ark.

The Corps has studied four earlier proposals to expand navigation on the Red, and even its dam-friendly engineers have concluded every time that the costs would far outweigh the benefits. The Fish and Wildlife Service has already issued a preemptive strike against the Index plan, warning that it would repeat the environmental damage of similar projects. At a recent meeting of navigation interests in Shreveport, a consultant hired by the Corps told listeners he might have to "get creative" with his data to justify the extension.

"This is a navigation project to nowhere--even the Corps knows that," fumes Terry Horton, director of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation. "It's the most appalling pie-in-the-sky idea I've ever heard. But that doesn't mean it won't happen. I've learned that lesson."

He might have learned it from insiders like J. Bennett Johnston, who still exudes contempt for "cost-benefit analyses" and similar wonkery. He knows in his heart that taming the unmanageable Red was a godsend for Louisiana, even if the paltry barge statistics don't show it yet. Numbers, he says, can be misleading. Beauty, he says, tells the truth.

"We created a wonderful lake a couple hundred miles long!" Johnston says. "That's not in the cost-benefit ratio, you know, but it should count for something. How do you weigh the advantages of a beautiful river?"

Tomorrow: Remaking the Missouri

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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