NEW ORLEANS (AP) — In the early 1800s, Red Bayou was a busy steamboat route around a huge series of logjams that blocked nearly 100 miles of the Red River in northwest Louisiana.
The logjams, which took centuries to build up, were cleared in the 1800s. Regular maintenance keeps the Red River open to barge traffic.
Levees built in the early 1900s block Red Bayou from the river. But by next summer, water pumped over the levee will fill the bayou for irrigation.
Farmers who raise cotton, soybeans and corn say they generally have plenty of rain for most of the year. They use wells for irrigation at the end of the growing season, when the most water is needed. At that time, as much as half of Red Bayou's channel is dry, and only a few especially low spots hold enough water for irrigation.
A $4 million freshwater diversion project is under way to send river water into the bayou, almost doubling the amount of land farmers along and near the nine-mile-long bayou can irrigate, to about 12,000 acres from 6,000 or 7,000.
The construction and planning money is from the federal and Caddo Parish governments. Farmers will pay to keep the project running.
Dan Logan of Gilliam, La., not far from the Arkansas border, currently can irrigate about 3,800 acres. After the diversion project kicks in, he said he expects to be able to water another 1,000 acres.
"It's really a neat deal," he said. "We are real proud of it and real pleased with it."
The project is a pilot that could be replicated in other parts of the state, said project manager Danny Martin of the Caddo Soil and Water Conservation District.
Arkansas has similar river-to-farm diversion projects, but the Caddo project is the first of its kind in Louisiana, Martin said.
Freshwater diversion projects in south Louisiana, where rainfall is more widespread through most of the year, are designed to send freshwater and sediments into eroding marshes along the Gulf of Mexico coast to rebuild land and wildlife environments.
For the Red Bayou project, Caddo Parish contributed $1 million, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource Conservation Service put up $3 million. The federal funding is coming from economic stimulus legislation.
Logan said the Red Bayou diversion won't be used year-round — the 15 or so farmers within a mile of the bayou usually need irrigation only from the end of June to mid-August. "Other times we get plenty of rain. We get plenty of rain in winter," he said. But when ears of corn, pods of beans and cotton bolls are maturing, they need a lot of water, he said.
Farmers will pay for the water. "We're going to assess ourselves the amount of money needed to pay for maintenance, pay for fuel, pay the man who comes around to check all our meters," Logan said.
The contract requires completion in August, but if the weather cooperates it could be done earlier, Martin said. He said the contractor has done about 60 percent of the work: installing two 75-inch pipes and riprap in the river, running pipe up the levee, through it near the top and back down, and laying two 48-inch pipelines totaling 2,500 feet from the bayou. Larger culverts also have been installed at two road crossings.
The pumps that will lift the water are still to come, and contractors haven't yet built three 6-foot-high weirs — earthen dams to keep the water deep enough for irrigation.
Logan said the project was first suggested about 20 years ago. "It's taken more turns. We'd think we've just about given up, and something would happen and we'd get going again," he said.
For a while, Red Bayou was part of a circuitous steamboat route around the Great Raft — a series of massive tangles of tree trunks along what witnesses estimated as 80 to 150 miles of Red River switchbacks.
The first steamboat arrived in Louisiana in 1812. In 1832, Capt. Henry Shreve of the Army Corps of Engineers and a crew of 200 began using saws, dynamite and "snag boats" that could ram or hoist embedded trees to clear the way to what is now Shreveport. Work farther northwest continued on the Red River into the 1870s.
As the logjam was broken, water levels dropped and Red Bayou was no longer navigable, Logan said.