Marty Shell said in early June that commercial traffic on the Arkansas River could return by the end of the month barring more heavy rains. And then Tropical Storm Bill hit and dropped more than 10 inches of rain in the river’s watershed. Tonnage shipped on the river in June was down more than 51%.
“In my 19 years on the river I've never seen the system shut down this long. We are going into the third month of high water and hope to be back to unloading barges by July 13,” Shell said on July 9. “The last barge we worked was on May 8.”
Tropical Storm Bill dropped more than 12 inches of rain during mid-June on many areas of Oklahoma, including Arkansas River watershed areas.
January through July 13 rainfall in Tulsa is 37.47 inches, almost 10 inches more than the 27.56 for the same period in 2014. Of the total, 22.32 inches – almost 60% – has fallen in the previous 60 days.
Shell, who owns Van Buren-based Five Rivers Distribution and operates the Port of Fort Smith and port operations in Van Buren, said the past three months of heavy rains have produced “one of the worst economic blows to the system that I have ever seen next to the 2009 Great Recession.”
“We will put our heads down and work hard in the upcoming months to try to make up for the down fall in tonnage we have seen for the last couple of months,” he said.
Shell estimates it could be as late as September before tonnage levels return to a normal range.
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.
June tonnage on the river totaled 390,084, 51.27% below the 800,614 tons in June 2014.
For the first six months of the year, Arkansas River tonnage has totaled 4.455 million tons, down 23% compared to the same period in 2014. All major categories have double-digit percentage declines in the year-to-date comparison. Sand, gravel and rock shipments, often the largest tonnage category, is down 21% on the year with 1.156 million tons shipped January-June. The iron and steel category, a sign of construction and manufacturing activity, is down 16% with 701,125 tons shipped January-June.
Inbound traffic for the first half of the year totaled 2.194 million, down 10% compared to the same period of 2014. Outbound traffic tonnage is 1.249 million tons, down 42%.
Without gains in the remainder of the year, the river system 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.