River barges parked, six locks closed from Fort Smith to Pine Bluff

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 137 views 

As of Friday morning (May 29), six of the 13 locks on the Arkansas portion of the Arkansas River system were closed. Locks were closed early Friday at Little Rock near the airport and below Pine Bluff. Earlier, locks had been closed at the James Trimble Lock & Dam near Fort Smith, and locks near Conway, Morrilton and Pine Bluff, according to Jay Townsend with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 

Barges at the Port of Little Rock are parked in the slack water harbor, as 340,000 cubic feet of water are expected to rush past Little Rock today or tomorrow  – more than twice the limit for navigation.

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. 

Locks are closed when the equipment is submerged. Traffic can travel between the locks but not through them.

Bryan Day, Little Rock Port Authority executive director, said barges are not in danger because all of them are being stored in the slack water harbor off the river with no chance of flooding. The port averages unloading a couple of barges each day.

Day said he expects traffic to resume within a week. In the meantime, operations are continuing with products being shipped through other means. 

“From a port standpoint, the economic impact will be minimal,” he said. “I think from an industrywide riverwide standpoint, the economic impact is probably going to be significant.”

Townsend said 600,000 to 700,000 tons of commodities normally would be shipped from Oklahoma’s Port of Catoosa to the Mississippi River, but locks also had to be closed May 13-15 when the river crested at 20.28 feet in Little Rock. Late today or early tomorrow, it should reach 23.3 feet, Townsend said. 

At that height, 340,000 cubic feet per second will be flowing through Little Rock. Under normal summertime conditions, that number is 30,000 to 50,000 cubic feet per second. 

Gene Higginbotham, executive director of the Arkansas Waterways Commission, said the largest tugboat operator had said it would be almost July before it could return to operations. That’s because the reservoirs in Oklahoma that feed the river are at more than 100% flood stage and must be gradually lowered.

The McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System has a $1.1 billion annual impact on Arkansas, Higginbotham said. Goods normally shipped on the system are now being shipped via another waterway, truck or rail. 

Marty Shell, owner of Van Buren-based Five Rivers Distribution which operates the port facilities in Van Buren and Fort Smith, said in mid May that the rains to that point would likely reduce river activity in the second quarter. He said at the time that continued rains could slow activity into the third quarter. Unfortunately for the river economy, the rains continued.

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.

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.

Higginbotham praised the Army Corps of Engineers for managing the system and preventing more damage. He noted that in 2011, the volume of water carried by the Mississippi River exceeded the flood of 1927, when large sections of Arkansas were submerged.

“We’re not seeing flooding like we used to because of basically the infrastructure that the Corps has in place, the navigation,” he said.

Not an immediate concern is the confluence of the White, Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers. A major flood in that area could cause the White and Arkansas to join into a swamp, ending navigation for up to a year. Hickingbotham said there has not been enough rain to cause the White River, usually higher in elevation, to rise excessively. In fact, two weeks ago the Arkansas River rose in elevation and flowed into it. He believes that will happen again this weekend. 

“More than likely there will be some damage (to the infrastructure). … I don’t think it will be a catastrophic failure,” he said.