Arkansas River tonnage down 9%, heavy rains could slow May activity

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 159 views 

Shipping on the Arkansas River continues to slow in 2015, with the U.S. Corps of Engineers reporting a 9% dip during the first four months of the year. Recent heavy rains in Arkansas, Kansas and northern Oklahoma may slow traffic more in future months.

The U.S. Corps of Engineers reports that 3.718 million tons floated up and down the Arkansas River between January and April, down 9% compared to the same period in 2014. Inbound tonnage was up 7% during the first four months, while outbound tonnage was down 30%. Shipments between ports on the river were down 2%.

April saw 907,240 tons shipped, down 11.16% compared to the 1.021 million tons shipped in April 2014.

The Arkansas River system (The McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation 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. 

Without gains in the remainder of the year, the river 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.

Marty Shell, owner of Van Buren-based Five Rivers Distribution which operates the port facilities in Van Buren and Fort Smith, said he was expecting Arkansas River tonnage to increase in the second quarter based on shipping trends at ports in Houston and New Orleans. However, the recent and expected April rains have him minimizing his expectation of gains and pushing those to the third quarter.

“A couple of the locks have shut down … and a lot of tow boats have tied up,” Shell said during a Monday (May 11) interview. “I will probably not be doing anything for about two weeks except for cutting grass and painting and cleaning up. … You will definitely see a decrease (in river tonnage) in May and it could go into June.”

There is a double whammy for river operators, according to Shell. Once river levels return to near normal flows, the the Corps releases excess rainwater from Oklahoma lakes along the system.

“And we then get hit again. … It will effect us for about two weeks or so,” Shell said, adding that it will be more than two weeks if more rain falls in the north Oklahoma and Kansas areas that drain into the Arkansas River watershed.

Because the ports in Fort Smith and Van Buren provide raw materials for everything from manufacturers in Fort Smith to the construction industry in Northwest Arkansas, high river levels for an extended period could become an issue. However, Shell said most of his customers carry about a month of supplies, and is confident river traffic will be moving within a month.

As to why tonnage is down year-to-date, Shell said that is a mystery to him.

“I cannot give you a reason why. We have been busy this year. Now we will slow down because of the water, but that’s the only thing that has slowed us down,” Shells said.

Shipments of sand, gravel and rock – typically the biggest category based on tonnage moved – totaled 891,841 tons during the first four months of 2015, down 11%. The category is a reflection of private and public sector construction. Iron/steel shipments totaled 562,525 tons during the first four months, unchanged compared to 2014. Such shipments reflect manufacturing activity near the shipping corridor.

The McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System recently was upgraded from “Connector” to “Corridor” status under the U.S. Department of Transportation’s America’s Marine Highway Program

This is the third piece of good news for the MKARNS in recent months. Earlier this year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers changed the system’s designation from a moderate-use to a high-use system, the same classification given to the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Previously, the Corps had announced that its budget included a $3 million study of the “Three Rivers” area, which is the confluence of the Arkansas, Mississippi and White Rivers. A major flooding event in that area could shut down the system for up to a year. Half of the $3 million is funded by the federal government. State legislators agreed to fund the other half during this year’s legislative session.