The McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (MKARNS) provides an economic benefit of nearly $2 billion a year to Arkansas. Operating 24 hours a day year-round, it’s a force that serves a 12-state region.
But in 2019, Mother Nature provided a valuable lesson: Humans do not control the weather. Our forefathers knew the danger of an unmanaged river and witnessed the Grand Prairie and Mississippi Delta flood time and time again. So they built levees, dams, and retention lakes. But our nation has not continued to invest in this infrastructure; we took it for granted. We failed to support the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) with an adequate budget, to maintain our levees. And when it rained, it poured.
In May, more than 20 inches of rain fell in less than two weeks — in the worst possible place. It fell upriver and overwhelmed the lakes designed to hold back flooding and provide a steady flow of water for navigation and power production. USACE was left with little choice but to let the water head downstream. As it moved south, the water strained aging levees and tested dams, shutting the river and wreaking havoc.
The flood robbed the Arkansas economy of an estimated $300 million. USACE believes our levees need $105 million in immediate repairs. The good news? Our leaders have risen to the challenge. From city halls to quorum courts to Little Rock to Washington, D.C., Arkansas is witnessing impressive action by our government to fix and prevent this from happening again.
In December, Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s Levee Task Force readied recommendations to our legislature. Simultaneously, our congressional delegation is working with localities to provide much-needed federal resources like FEMA funds and infrastructure grants.
The MKARNS was conceived by leaders tired of seeing an unpredictable river with massive flooding. Construction began in 1957 and brought a new hope for the state. By 1971, the system was fully operable, and millions of tons of material could be efficiently moved up and down the river. With its lakes, levees, locks and dams, the MKARNS could properly and predictably manage water levels within certain parameters.
Little Rock city leaders were well aware of the potential of the MKARNS and believed it would bring Arkansas into the modern economy. The creation of the system coincided with the construction of Interstates 30 and 40, connecting the Arkansas economy to the country and world. To capitalize on these investments, the Port of Little Rock was created.
The mission of the Port is to drive economic development by providing a world-class transportation hub that connects Arkansas to the global economy. We execute that mission by operating barge terminals directly on the river and in the Slackwater Harbor. We do that by connecting all tenants in the industrial park to Union Pacific and BNSF Railroads via shortline railroad. And we do it by offering easy access to Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport, I-40 and I-30.
Since the Port began 60 years ago, Little Rock has provided the tools to create jobs. Together, we have grown the Port to more than 40 companies and nearly 5,000 jobs. In just the last few years, products made in the Port have been shipped to all 50 states and more than 70 countries.
Despite the flood, 2019 was a viable economic year for the Port. We announced two new projects: the $90 million, 536-employee corporate office and factory for CZ-USA and a new plant for HMS Manufacturing that will create 90 new, high-paying jobs. In the first three quarters of the year, the Port kept a record pace of loading and unloading barges and had near-record rail activity.
The water has receded, and the work continues. Barges are moving again, and the economy that Arkansas and the Port have built together has shown its resilience. We are poised to enter this next decade stronger than ever, and I am confident that our economy is the strongest it has ever been. Let 2019 be a lesson, and let us support our leaders’ joint efforts to improve the MKARNS. This system truly is vital to our growing economy and our collective safety. After all, a rising tide lifts all boats.
Editor’s note: Bryan Day is the executive director of the Little Rock Port Authority. The opinions expressed are those of the author.