“We understand that cuts have to be made in federal spending, but we hope Congress will do so with a comprehension of the national and international impact if this river system is allowed to decline.”

Bill Hobgood, executive director of the Ouachita River Valley Association, noted that 28,000 jobs in southeast Arkansas and northeast Louisiana are associated with the 520-mile river, the longest in the Vicksburg District.

Eliminating dredging would severely hamper navigation and shipping, he said, and would have an adverse impact on flood control, water supplies for agriculture and municipalities, recreation/tourism, fish/wildlife, and ecosystem restoration.

The system has been dredged for the past 40 years, Hobgood noted, and “minimal dredging is needed annually to maintain the channel.” Bank stabilization work is also needed, he said, to maintain the integrity of the levees, but no funds were appropriated for levee work in 2010 or 2011.

“We move 1.7 million tons of commodities a year on this river,” he said. “These systems need to be dependable and reliable. It’s critical that the Corps get the money needed for dredging and other maintenance on this waterway.”

Without needed dredging, Hobgood said, the channel could become unusable for shipping and eventually, “there could be places you could walk across the river.”

Bill Williams, Mississippi/Louisiana operations manager for Bunge North America at Vicksburg, Miss., said the Ouachita/Black River system serves large areas of central and north Louisiana. During the grains harvest period, he said, “our tanks can fill quickly, and if we don’t have a way to move this production, it can adversely affect everyone.

“Even with the increase in cotton prices, we’ve got hundreds of thousands of acres of land that was once cotton now in grains. And growers are getting higher yields. Southern farmers are very aggressive harvesters, and a lot of grain comes off in a very short time period. There’s no way we could truck grain out as fast as farmers can truck it in.

“Virtually all that grain ends up on a barge,” Williams said. “If we have to light load barges because the depth of these waterways isn’t adequate, it could stop the whole process and have a big impact on the price structure of grains. Everyone would feel the impact.

R.D. James, manager of A.C. Riley Cotton Company LLC at New Madrid, Mo., and a member of the Mississippi River Commission, noted that “with more than 60 percent of the grain in the country moved on these rivers, I don’t know what would happen to our economy if we can’t get this grain out for export.