Arkansas River study requested; River operator says real fix needed

story by Ryan Saylor

The Congressional delegations from Arkansas and Oklahoma released a letter Tuesday (March 26) requesting funding for a study that would allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to fix a recurring problem versus "putting a band aid" on the problem.

The letter, signed by all of the congressmen and senators from both states minus U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., was written to Jo Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, and requests $100,000 so the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can study an ongoing problem at the convergence of three rivers where the McClennan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System begins.

"The Three Rivers Study would investigate ongoing threats to navigation and bottonland hardwoods at the confluence of the Arkansas, Mississippi and White Rivers in southeastern Arkansas," the letter reads. "As we understand, the MKARNS is being threatened with a breach between navigation miles 3 and 8 on the White River."

The letter goes on to claim that should a breach occur on the MKARNS, it would halt navigation for more than 100 days while costing the economies of Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas in excess of $300 million, "including the loss of thousands of acres of wetlands."

Marty Shell, owner of Five Rivers Distribution on the Arkansas River in Van Buren, explained in simpler terms why the study was necessary.

"Through time, all rivers change course. You have high water and low water events that always want the Arkansas and White Rivers to merge into one another. The study is one that the Corps wants to do to stop the White and Arkansas from joining up with one another."

Shell added that while the majority of the Arkansas River is able to handle navigation, the last few miles before emptying into the Mississippi River have never been navigable, meaning that the White River is used. Should both bodies end up overflowing into one another, that would result in the disruption of commerce mentioned in the letter and the result could be a loss of business for himself and other businesses that rely on the flow of goods up and down the river.

The Corps now repairs any flood damage or other issues on a per-incident basis, which Shell said has been the status quo for "many years now."

"The Corps of Engineers spends $1.5 million a year putting in rock and stuff of that nature down there to stop it. But they are not solving the problem, they're just putting a band aid on it year by year. With O&M (operations and maintenance money) from the Corps, that is the money they give them to tackle this problem."

He said even if funding the study is approved, it will not fix the problem of the Corps not having the funding necessary to prevent the possible merging of the rivers.

"We can study it until the cows come home," he said. "But until we have a president and a House and a Senate who wants to distribute earmarks (to fund infrastructure investment), they can study it but not much is going to happen to it."

Shell said securing earmarks, which have largely been banned since Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010, are what will move local economies along the river forward.

"Some call it earmarks, but I call it economic development. It is in your own backyard. When it's right here for us, it's economic development being spent right here in the state versus other states."

He said while a merging of the different bodies of water is unlikely in the next five to 10 years, he could see it possibly happening in the next 50 to 100 years, when the region will be even more reliant on river commerce and he said for that reason, it's time to stop putting band aids on the problem and instead heal the wound.

"The Little Rock District (of the Corps) does a great job. The Corps themselves does a great job. But they have their hands tied on what they can do. The administration and the federal government needs to realize they need (to invest) infrastructure dollars into a river system. … For many years, we haven't put money back into the infrastructure of our country. It's time we wake up and realize if you don't put oil into an engine for 50 years, it won't run for you."

According to the letter signed by the two-state delegation, the MKARNS brings between $1.5 billion and $3 billion in trade transportation to Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas per year. They also said 42 different countries have been involved in trade of some sort along the navigation system.

A decision on whether to fund the study has not yet been announced.