The White River's layout makes it easy to travel. This isn't a recent revelation. Snaking down from southwest Missouri through east Arkansas, the lower White River has been navigable for over a century.
“I'm sure some came overland, but most of the settlers around here came up the river by steamboat,” says Steven Rutledge, a farmer pushing for the river to be even more traffic-friendly than it already is. By doing so, Rutledge insists, the economy will improve and now-faltering Delta towns — like his native Newport — will have a fighting chance.
There is a problem, though: barge traffic can get up the White only half the year. To take advantage of barges' lower shipping costs, the river needs to be open year-round. The solution, says Rutledge, is to replace much of the ongoing annual dredging with dikes.
“We wouldn't hurt anything,” says Rutledge, president of the White River Coalition (a group pushing for the navigation project). “I'm a fifth generation resident — my great-great-grandfather settled here. It's ridiculous for anyone to claim we want to harm the river. If you're worried about the environment, the project would improve it. If you're worried about crops/fuel/commodity costs, they would improve. These are good things.”
There's a lock and dam at Montgomery Point, on the lower end of the White River. The bottom 10 miles is part of the Arkansas River navigation system. There are also five dams on the upper White River: Greers Ferry, Bull Shoals, Northfork, Table Rock and Beaver.
According to the U.S. Corps of Engineers, Newport is at mile 254 of the White River system. For the 244 miles Rutledge is concerned with (since the bottom 10 miles is already navigable year-round), the proposal calls for the installation of periodic dike fields. According to Corps reports, the fields would touch only 11 of the 244 miles.
Since 1892, dredging on the White River has been authorized and is done yearly. The river will usually rise enough in the spring to ship commodities in and out.
“So, we have a river we can use from Newport about 50 percent of the time,” says Rutledge. “A 4.5 — foot deep channel is authorized. When the river is up, the channel is much deeper than that. At low water levels, though, barges can't get through. Most barges require a 9-foot draft, at least.”
The 9-foot level is difficult to maintain because of straightaways on the White. The aforementioned 11 miles is where the straightaways are worst, Rutledge says. At river bends the current sweeps through and keeps the channel 10 feet-plus deep. When the river straightens, however, sand settles and the river becomes shallow.
“Right now, they dredge those straightaways every year. If we can install dikes, they'll reduce the dredging (which costs about $2 million annually) by at least half.
“There won't be any structures put in around the refuges. Between Newport and the (Cache River and White River) refuges, maybe you'd have three dikes for a quarter or half a mile and skip 10 miles to the next set. We'd affect almost nothing.”
Dikes would be placed in sets of three on one side of the river and water flow would be natural (or as natural as possible with dams further upstream).
“True, water will speed up where the dikes are, but as soon as it hits the next bend, the water speed will return to normal. The same volume of water will be coming down the river. There will be no realignment of any banks, no cutoffs. It will remain as it is.”
One thing about the debated stretch of the White: making it navigable year-round won't require locks and dams. A lock and dam typically cost $200 million to $500 million. The navigation project will cost $30 million total.
Another point of interest: for the aforementioned 244 miles of the White, the river falls only 80 feet.
“That's around a third of a foot per mile!” says Rutledge. “That's so flat, it's amazing, and it helps explain why it's so naturally navigable and locks and dams aren't necessary.”
While he can't say it will improve sport-fishing overall, Rutledge says fishing around the dike structures will improve. The dikes provide habitat for small fish and crustaceans that attract bass.
“This has been observed on the Arkansas River (where a similar dike project was installed),” says Rutledge.
Other lessons can be learned from the Arkansas River project. As far as keeping the channel open, the dikes performed as advertised. However, sand built up behind the bulky structures. To deal with the sand, the Corps found that by notching the dikes, sand could pass through and the buildup problem disappeared.
Fear for the safety of area refuges and wildlife have frightened some away from the project.
“We've heard all kinds of things about how this will ruin duck hunting,” says Rutledge. “It's just not true. Folks were saying hunting would be hurt prior to any studies even being done. But this project won't flood any acres and won't drain any acres either. It won't help or hurt duck hunting. Period.”
The most immediate beneficiaries of the project would be those involved in agriculture. “With other projects the idea is ‘build it and the business will come.’ That's not the case here — the business is already here and ready to go.”
A feasibility study by Arkansas State University shows that year-round river traffic will save $7 million annually in transportation costs alone. And that figure is based only on what's being shipped currently.
If barges were constantly moving, additional revenue streams are already in place, says Rutledge. For example, 1 million bushels of corn, currently being moved by rail and trucks, are fed to poultry in the area. Farmers and mills could ship that feed up the river much cheaper.
“This project would bring farmers at least 10 cents to 30 cents per bushel more for wheat, soybeans and rice. That's not to mention fertilizer savings, diesel shipments, steel, and many other things. The potential is huge.”
Scrap the potential, though, and for the project's $30 million price tag, $8 million ($1 million in dredging costs plus the $7 million in shipping) would be saved annually.
One barge will hold 60 trailer-truckloads. On the White River, four can be towed. That means for every trip up the river, 240 trucks are taken off the road.
“Just imagine what that would mean in terms of fuel savings and pollution reduction. Shouldn't environmentalists be for this? I can't figure it out. Think of all the farmers from around here who have to haul their crops to Little Rock or Memphis. Wouldn't it be better to barge it out?”
At $30 million, installing the navigation project equates to $118,000 per mile. In contrast, the Arkansas River project cost $1.2 billion in the 1950s — almost $2.7 million per mile.
Right now, however, money isn't easily found. Project proponents must have a 20 percent match (local or state funds) on the $30 million. The federal government would pay around $24 million and, “we've got to come up with $6 million. We'll probably go to the state legislature to try and get those funds.”
East Arkansas is among the poorest regions in the nation, Rutledge says. “This project would help our economy and spur job growth. People are abandoning this area for lack of jobs. We need this.”