Tonnage moved on the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System was down 8% during the first quarter thanks in large part to a 31% dip in outbound shipments and an 18% decline in sand, gravel and rock shipments. However, one local port operator says his operations are off to a good start in 2015.
The U.S. Corps of Engineers reports that 2.81 million tons floated up and down the Arkansas River during the first quarter of 2015, down 8% compared to the first quarter of 2014.
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.
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.
Marty Shell, president of Van Buren-based Five Rivers Distribution, which manages port operations in Fort Smith and Van Buren, said his operations have been busy and was surprised tonnage was down compared to the 2014 period.
“First quarter for Five Rivers Distribution has been another good quarter. I don’t want to jinx myself … but so far it’s been a good year,” Shell said.
He said recent conversations with port operators in Houston, Mobile, Ala., and New Orleans indicate “they are riding a wave right now of activity.”
“We’re busy up and down the river, and the big guys at the ports are jumping. … So I don’t know what to think about those (Corps tonnage numbers),” he said.
Shell said port operations in the Fort Smith area continue to supply construction materials to Northwest Arkansas and other metro regions with a 200-mile radius.
“I can tell you that the port of Fort Smith is full of lumber for a lot of that new home construction in Northwest Arkansas. That’s a good indicator of the housing market when you see a port full of lumber,” he explained.
The three sectors often connected to economic growth were, overall, down. During the quarter, there were 636,154 tons of sand, gravel and rock shipped on the river, down 18%; 437,925 tons of iron and steel products, up 1%; and 102,200 tons of minerals and building materials, down 4%. The iron and steel products are inbound shipments that typically go to manufacturing operations.
Those three critical sectors in 2014 were up 12%, 15% and 7%, respectively.
In the other big shipment categories, 725,684 tons of chemical fertilizer was shipped, up 11%, 396,300 tons of soybeans were shipped, flat compared to the 2014 quarter, and 130,500 tons of food and farm products were shipped, down 21%.
Inbound shipments totaled 1.398 million tons, up 18%, and outbound shipments fell 31% to 880,189 tons.