Tonnage shipped on the Arkansas River during the first quarter of 2021 is down 1% compared with the same quarter of 2020, but port operator Marty Shell says barge demand is strong and believes the rest of the year will bring more activity to the inland waterway.
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. But tonnage was up 22% in 2020 to 10.322 million tons.
Tonnage shipped on the river during the first three months of 2021 totaled 2.462 million tons, down 1% compared with the 2.489 million tons during the same period in 2020. March shipments totaled 871,266 tons, up 10.8% compared with March 2020.
Inbound shipments – those coming from off the river system – totaled 1.074 million tons during the first three months of the year, up 15.2% compared with the same period in 2020. Outbound shipments totaled 863,295 tons, up 2.5% compared with the same period in 2020. Internal shipments – those sent between port operations on the river – totaled 524,994 tons, down 26.6% compared with the same period in 2020.
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.
Shell, president of Van Buren-based Five Rivers Distribution, which has port operations in Fort Smith and Van Buren, said the Van Buren operations “have been busy” during the first quarter, adding that orders continue to come in for shipments of bulk commodities.
“Steel seems to be moving strong even with tariffs still in play. The domestic suppliers aren’t able to keep up with demand. Bulk goods have been strong as well with more shipments on the books. Inbound rail has slowed down drastically and (over-the-road) truck drivers are still in strong demand thus kicking some freight over to barge and some rail,” Shell told Talk Business & Politics.
Iron and steel shipments have improved. The category was down 24% at the end of 2020 but is down 5.8% at the end of the first quarter.
Shell said the port of Van Buren is building a 30,000 square foot warehouse, which will boost indoor storage at both parts to around 500,000 square feet. He also said the port of Fort Smith is close to full recovery from the 2019 flooding.
“The port of Fort Smith is about 85% complete from the May 2019 floods and the city of Fort Smith and the River Valley will have a brand new facility that will help with economic development and is something to be proud of and didn’t cost the citizens a single penny,” he said.
Following are the top five shipment categories by tonnage for the first three months of 2021, with the percentage change from the same period in 2020.
• Chemical fertilizer: 665,300 tons (up 26.7%)
• Sand, gravel, rock: 586,594 tons (down 24.6%)
• Soybeans: 379,972 tons (up 46.2%)
• Iron & steel: 227,504 tons (down 5.8%)
• Wheat: 169,099 tons (down 33.7%)