Arkansas' rivers are the equivalent of blood vessels leading to the Atlantic Ocean that carry goods produced here to the world and goods produced by the world to here. One of those blood vessels, the Arkansas River, is in danger of developing a clot that would stifle barge traffic for parts of a year and cost users of the system $300 million. How policymakers respond to the problem will say a lot about how public policy is going to work in an era of trillion-dollar budget deficits.

Arkansas’ rivers are the equivalent of blood vessels leading to the Atlantic Ocean that carry goods produced here to the world and goods produced by the world to here. One of those blood vessels, the Arkansas River, is in danger of developing a clot that would stifle barge traffic for parts of a year and cost users of the system $300 million. How policymakers respond to the problem will say a lot about how public policy is going to work in an era of trillion-dollar budget deficits.

Here’s the background. The Arkansas River wasn’t a reliable mode of transportation through much of the state’s history. Magnificent as it looks through much of the state, as it nears the Mississippi River it meanders and becomes flood-prone.

That changed in the 1960s with the creation of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, which tamed the river and made barge traffic possible from Catoosa, Oklahoma, to the Mississippi and back. A critical part of that system is the manmade Arkansas Post Canal, which reroutes barge traffic from the twisting last few miles of the Arkansas River into the White River and then into the Mississippi.

Flooding is controlled by a series of concrete-like structures, including two, the Owens and the Melinda, that contain the water under normal conditions and allow spillovers during floods. The spillovers are vital to maintaining 100,000 acres of valuable bottomland hardwoods that are home to endangered wildlife and 400-year-old trees.

It all works fine until nature decides it has other ideas. The White and the Arkansas want to join and form one big soup at their confluence, and that’s where the clot would form. The drainage from the White to the Arkansas would leave the waterway too shallow to assure navigation. You could go from Catoosa to southeast Arkansas but no farther, which would halt all barge traffic there and temporarily leave the industries that depend on it stranded.

The Melinda, the southernmost of the two structures, was damaged in last spring’s floods. If it were to fail, the Owens almost certainly would fail as well.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Little Rock District, which maintains the system, estimates that repairing the damage would take 110 days spread out over a year, like an interstate lane that periodically is closed for repairs. That would cost users, including a lot of employers, about $300 million. It also would call into question the reliability of the entire system and make it harder to recruit new employers to locate at ports on the Arkansas.

The fix to return the system to pre-flood conditions would cost $10 million. Congress has provided $2.25 million, with the rest expected to be funded. The long-term fixes are very expensive. The best solution would cost $260 million, while another solution, not as foolproof and not nearly as good for the ecosystem, would cost $60 million to $80 million. All of this is occurring during a time of limited resources for the Corps. The Little Rock district is looking at a budget cut from $114 million last year to $86 million this year. It will be reducing some of the recreational services it provides, but that won’t save enough money to fix the Melinda structure.

Goodness knows I have called for less spending in this space, but that $10 million Band-Aid can’t come fast enough. The $260 million long-term fix? While it would benefit Arkansas for generations, that’s a tougher call.

Americans tend to ignore problems that can be addressed relatively cheaply until they become an expensive crisis, and that’s especially so when it comes to infrastructure. Policymakers tend to neglect roads, bridges and waterways because all seems well until it isn’t, just like car owners tend to put off changing their oil and rotating their tires because the car seems to run fine until it doesn’t. Ninety percent of international trade occurs by sea. Arkansas may not be on the ocean, but it has easy access to it. What would happen if it didn’t?

CORRECTION: In my Jan. 8 column, “These are our bankers,” I attributed this quote to Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin: “The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.”

It’s often ascribed to him, but it looks like he never said it or wrote it. My apology.

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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas.