Arkansas River tonnage dips 3% in 2014, but inbound tonnage up 11%

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 68 views 

Big reductions in the amount of coal, wheat and farm products shipped on the Arkansas River were primary reasons for a 3% drop in tonnage shipped in 2014 compared to 2013. The good news is that a shipment category tied to the health of manufacturing was up 15% for the year.

The U.S. Corps of Engineers reports that 11.719 million tons floated up and down the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System 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.

The 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.

Barges carried 422,100 tons of coal on the system in 2014, down 44% compared to 2013.

“We do a lot of coal, and the port of Keota does a lot of coal. But we probably haven’t touched a coal barge in about 14 months, if not longer,” said Marty Shell, president of Van Buren-based Five Rivers Distribution, which manages port operations in Fort Smith and Van Buren. “It costs more to get it (coal) out of the ground than what they can sell it for right now.”

Part of the coal reduction is because China is buying cheaper coal from Australia – a reminder of how global energy economics can have an impact on regional economies.

The tonnage numbers show 1.107 million tons of wheat were shipped on the river, down 22%. Barges carried 584,750 tons of other food and farm products on the river in 2014, down 29% compared to 2013. Coal, wheat and farm products shipments are in the “outbound” segment, which totaled 4.44 million tons in 2014, down 18%.

However, three sectors Shell says are often connected to economic growth saw gains. There were 3.094 million tons of sand, gravel and rock shipped on the river, up 12%; 1.659 million tons of iron and steel products, up 15%; and 461,980 tons of minerals and building materials, up 7%. The iron and steel products are inbound shipments that typically go to manufacturing operations.

“That’s a good indicator of what manufacturing is doing. When you have iron and steel up, it shows that manufacturing is strong,” Shell said.

Iron, sand, gravel, and minerals are classified as inbound shipments. Such shipments totaled 4.676 million tons in 2014, up 11%.

He said a majority of the iron and steel and other inbound shipments go to Northwest Arkansas and other areas outside the Fort Smith metro.

“Northwest Arkansas utilizes this river system more than we do here in the River Valley,” Shell said.

As to how busy the river will be in 2015, Shell said his business is off to a good start. The first 14 days of January saw “very strong” activity, especially with inbound steel shipments, he said.

“We’ve had a good strong year (in 2014), so I now have nothing to complain about. … We think we will have a good year this year.”