What will the future look like as Congress and the president approach the so-called fiscal cliff and grapple with a $1.1 trillion deficit? Let’s look to the Arkansas River for a clue.

The river has traditionally offered a free flow of waterborne traffic, but starting Oct. 1, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began shutting down locks at Fort Smith and Ozark from 8 a.m. until noon every day for maintenance.

The locks, which lift and lower boats like they do at the Panama Canal, are necessary to make sure the river is navigable year-round. Those two locks are considered to be "low use." About a thousand boats travel through them each year, most of them commercial barges carrying tons of grain, fertilizer and other bulk items. Now, if those barges show up at the wrong time, they’ll have to wait four hours.

The Corps is doing this because Congress has been sending it fewer and fewer dollars and probably will continue to do so. Thanks to that $1.1 trillion budget deficit, the district’s operations and maintenance budget dropped from $106 million in 2011 to $89 million in 2012, and the future doesn’t look brighter.

Like the rest of the military, the Corps of Engineers’ funding is considered discretionary spending. That’s the 40 percent of the budget where Congress’ spending decisions aren’t controlled by previous law. Nondiscretionary items include Medicare, Social Security and food stamps. Changing spending in those programs requires an act of Congress.

Because discretionary spending is easier to cut, it’s being cut first, and the consequences for the Corps of Engineers will be too big to be ignored. According to John Balgavy, chief of the operations division in the Little Rock District, six critical projects could fail during the next five years, and if one does, it would shut down navigation on that part of the river. In several locations, the insulation on 45-year-old wiring crumbles when handled. Repairing those sites would cost $21.7 million – 1/166,000th of the federal budget – but the Corps just doesn’t have the money. If something breaks down, it could cost the economy far more than that.

So the Corps is stretching its dollars wherever it can. Instead of its limited personnel spending their entire day letting folks through the lock’s aging gates, they’ll spend half their days fixing and maintaining those gates. The Corps is hoping that limiting the hours the locks are in use will limit the number of times the gates open, prolonging their lives. It’s considering applying a similar policy elsewhere, including Murray Lock and Dam in Little Rock.

Pretty good idea? Commercial barge operators don’t think so. At a public meeting in Little Rock Nov. 7, Paul Hastings of Little Rock Harbor Service likened it to shutting down Interstate 40 between Little Rock and Memphis four hours a day so road crews can maintain the highway. How will Arkansas attract industry this way, he asked? Phyllis Harden, executive assistant at Pine Bluff Sand and Gravel, said shippers are wasting fuel and paying idle employees’ salaries while their barges sit. Eventually, more goods will have to be shipped by interstate, she said.

This is a sharp departure from the past, when the Corps has let everyone through the locks without much of a wait, including those atop Jet Skis or paddling a canoe. That’s been standard procedure even though it costs money in operations and wear and tear each time those gates open and close.

This is about a lot more than boats and barges or the end of unlimited jet ski travel. It’s about the choices the country will have to make in the future because it hasn’t made the tough ones in the past – choices that will affect all of us. If barges have to wait four hours during the workday to deliver their goods, then Americans might be forced to accept that some rural post offices will close, the military might shrink, and the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare might rise a little someday.

A trillion is a billion millions, so we’re not going to balance a $1.1 trillion budget deficit saving $21.7 million on the Arkansas River.


Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is brawnersteve@mac.com