Agri shipments help push Arkansas River tonnage up more than 30%

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,332 views 

Two port operators on the Arkansas River system say conditions are improving – thanks in large part to shipments of sand/gravel/rock and wheat – with hopes that “normal” conditions may return in the fourth quarter of this year or the first quarter of 2021.

River traffic was beginning to improve from record historic flooding in early 2019 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the economy in early 2020. River tonnage in 2019 totaled just 8.48 million tons, down 22% from 2018.

Tonnage shipped on the river during the first nine months of 2020 totaled 7.679 million tons, up 30.4% compared with the same period in 2019. September shipments totaled 768,285 tons, up 43.3% compared with September 2019.

Inbound shipments – those coming from off the river system – totaled 2.631 million tons during the first nine months of the year, up 8.6% compared with the same period in 2019. Outbound shipments totaled 2.625 million tons, up 39.3% compared with the same period in 2019. Internal shipments – those sent between port operations on the river – totaled 2.422 million tons, up 53% compared with the same period in 2019.

The Arkansas 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. The river also has five ports: Pine Bluff, Little Rock, Fort Smith, Muskogee, Okla., and the Tulsa Port of Catoosa in Oklahoma.

Marty Shell, president of Van Buren-based Five Rivers Distribution, which has port operations in Fort Smith and Van Buren, said agri commodity shipments and improved numbers in Oklahoma – which was hit hardest by the 2019 floods – have boosted overall traffic.

“September tonnage numbers will indicate a strong soybean harvest that is going on with also a strong demand for barges. I also believe you’re seeing stronger numbers in the Oklahoma sector due to the fact of last year’s historical flooding. All in all business is fair to par, but everyone is hoping for a strong fourth quarter of 2020,” Shell said.

Bryan Day, executive director of the Port of Little Rock, said 2020 has been challenging but September showed “significant” improvement. Day said the port has worked 286 barges between January and September, down from 429 during the same period in 2019.

“2020 has been a challenging year, but we are optimistic that activity levels will resume to near normal levels in the first quarter of 2021. “September showed a significant improvement in the level of activity at the Port, a hopeful sign that the economy may be improving,” Day noted.

Following are the top five shipment categories by tonnage for the first nine months of 2020, with the percentage change from the same period in 2019.
• Sand, gravel, rock: 2.702 million tons (up 51.1%)
• Chemical, fertilizer: 1.417 million tons (up 14.3%)
• Wheat: 937,873 tons (up 141.6%)
• Soybeans: 712,000 tons (up 7.3%)
• Iron & steel: 690,712 tons (down 34.3%)