Fort Smith area business leaders, politicians and other local stakeholders got a first hand glimpse of the United States' largest diesel tugboat as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers brought together the diverse group of nearly 100 individuals for a nearly three hour tour along the Arkansas River.
The river cruise on the Motor Vessel Mississippi started at Lock and Dam 13 in Barling and made its way along the river boundary between Fort Smith and Van Buren to discuss the future of the Arkansas River and its impact on the regional economy.
Col. Courtney Paul, Little Rock District Engineer with the Corps, said the MV Mississippi — a Memphis-based tugboat that spends the vast majority of its time engaged in construction work along the Mississippi River — brought the communities along the Arkansas River a rare occasion.
"This is a unique opportunity for us. It's the second time ever that the Motor Vessel Mississippi has come up the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System," he said, adding that the Mississippi River Commission would hold public hearings next week on the vessel as it travels from Catoosa, Okla., and works its way back down the Arkansas River.
Public hearings will focus on navigation, the environment and the relationships between recreation and industry along the busy waterway. Paul said among the individuals scheduled on the manifest Monday as the towboat makes its way back through Fort Smith is Gov. Mary Fallin, R-Okla.
He said before the meetings begin, each of the commanders from different regions along the river — such his office in Little Rock and the Tulsa office that manages the river from the Oklahoma border at Fort Smith to Catoosa — are inviting the public to participate and engage with the Corps so the topics of importance to communities all along the river can be made known to the commission.
"We can kind of educate or explain what's going on (along) the river to folks," he added.
According to Paul, policy will be front and center during the meetings with the commission, with testimony during the meetings placed in the Congressional record. And while communities including Fort Smith may push for policies such as the 12 foot channel or a new harbor, he said part of the trip along the river is about an educational experience for the public and local leaders in business and government to understand the Corps' priorities in order to keep industry flowing through river towns like Fort Smith and Van Buren.
He said while local priorities like the 12-foot channel are important, the public needs to understand the threats to the system and how it could impact not only river commerce, but train and truck transport at ports all along the river and how one threat could derail plans like the 12 foot channel. Arkansas business groups are advocating for the river channel to be dredged and maintained to a 12-foot channel along the Arkansas River, deeper than the 9-foot standard in place.
"One of the greatest threats is the situation at the mouth of the system, which is what you call the three rivers area which is the confluence of the Mississippi, the White and the Arkansas Rivers. Why it's a threat to the reliability is that right now, the way it's set up you flow into the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System into the White River, you're in the first pool. You go into the Arkansas post canal, you're in the second pool. And then you follow the Arkansas River up to here and then on to Catoosa. The White River wants to do what … rivers want to do, and that is to meander and join up with the Arkansas. It's done that in the past, we've kind of patched that with a soil-cement levy, but every year we run the risk of a breach of the soil-cement levy."
If a breach occurs, he said it could shut down the river for as many as three or four months, cost local economies in the short term and possibly costing ports, towns and companies along the navigation system in the long term if companies find other ways to transport goods by bypassing the Arkansas River.
He said the risk of a breach means the Corps will make funding a permanent fix a priority with the hope for other projects down the road.
The tour comes just less than two weeks before U.S. Sens. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., are scheduled to be in Fort Smith to discuss transportation issues in a question and answer session to take place with the area's Regional Intermodal Transportation Authority (RITA).
The meeting with Boozman and Inhofe on Aug. 19 was organized by consultant Matt Sagely, who RITA has hired to organize meetings between the agency and influential members of Congress focusing on infrastructure issues of importance to the Fort Smith region, including a proposed inland harbor.
The MV Mississippi is scheduled to travel Catoosa before eventually looping back toward Fort Smith Monday evening, where Fallin is scheduled to be in attendance at the Mississippi River Commission meeting on the vessel.