Arkansas River Tonnage Down 25% In July, Traffic Improves In August

Aug 19, 2015

Barges are pushed up the Arkansas River, under the Union Pacific Baring Cross Bridge, in this file photo from December 2013.
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

The long rain-induced nightmare for port, barge and other operators on the Arkansas River may soon be over, but the impact of heavy rains earlier this year pushed river tonnage down more than 25% in July.

Tonnage shipped on the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System between January and July totaled 5.135 million in July, down 23% compared to the same period in 2014, according to a monthly report from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

July saw 679,634 tons shipped on the river, down 25.4% compared to July 2014. It’s the sixth consecutive monthly decline, with the river hitting a 2015 low point in May with just 347,336 tons shipped.

The Arkansas River system is 445 miles long and stretches from the confluence of the Mississippi River to the Port of Catoosa near Tulsa, Okla. The controlled waterway has 18 locks and dams, with 13 in Arkansas and five in Oklahoma. The river also has five ports: Pine Bluff, Little Rock, Fort Smith, Muskogee, Okla., and the Tulsa Port of Catoosa in Oklahoma.

An unusually wet end of winter and spring season resulted in river flooding that shut down a majority of lock and dam operations. Just when the cycle of wet weather from the west was ending, Tropical Storm Bill moved out of the Gulf of Mexico and dropped more than 12 inches of rain during mid-June on many areas of Oklahoma, including Arkansas River watershed areas.

According to the Corps, river flows reached 180,000 cubic feet per second, well above the typical 20,000 cubic feet per second.

Marty Shell, who owns Van Buren-based Five Rivers Distribution and operates the Port of Fort Smith and port operations in Van Buren, said his company saw operations resume on July 15, with a backlog of barges keeping his employees busy. August has also been busy, and he is confident tonnage trends will return to more normal conditions by the fourth quarter.

“August should be a good month; back in the black,” Shell said, adding that the finances of “ports and terminals and towing and barge lines took a big hit” as a result of river conditions.

And while the river system is again open, problems remain. Shell said “heavy shoaling” in some areas of the river in Oklahoma are causing some barges to run aground.

“The Corps is working with dredge contractors to cut the channel, but things are going very slow. This is causing major problems for our friends in Oklahoma,” Shell said.

For the first seven months of 2015, inbound river tonnage totaled 2.509 million, down 11%. Outbound tonnage was 1.469 million, down 40% for the first seven months. Tonnage shipped from point-to-point on the river (internal) totaled 1.155 million, down 19%.

Of the major categories of items shipped on the river, sand/gravel/rock is down 22% for the first seven months of 2015, iron and steel is down 15% and chemicals/fertilizer is down 16%.

Without gains in the remainder of the year, the river system could see two consecutive years of shipping declines. Tonnage totaled 11.719 million tons in 2014, down from the 12.139 million in 2013 but better than the 11.687 million in 2012 and the 10.6 million in 2011.