Commercial Arkansas River traffic shows slight gain through May

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 705 views 

Steel shipments at the Port of Fort Smith.

Tonnage shipped on the Arkansas River during the first five months of 2021 is up 0.54% compared with the same period of 2020, with inbound and outbound traffic boosting activity on the more than 400-mile navigable 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 five months of 2021 totaled 4.304 million tons, up 0.54% compared with the 4.281 million tons during the same period in 2020. May shipments totaled 855,752 tons, down from the 872,557 tons in May 2020.

Marty Shell, president of Van Buren-based Five Rivers Distribution, which has port operations in Fort Smith and Van Buren, said he is optimistic for improving river traffic for the remainder of the year and into 2022, with product demand continuing to struggle to meet economic growth.

“I’m seeing and hearing that the domestic market can’t keep up with the economic growth that we are seeing, but Trump tariffs are still hurting the import market. Something soon will have to give,” said Shell, who is also a member of the Arkansas Waterways Commission. “We are also seeing a higher trucking demand and some products will find their way to barge and rail.”

Inbound shipments – those coming from off the river system – totaled 1.898 million tons during the first five months of the year, up 12.6% compared with the same period in 2020. Outbound shipments totaled 1.484 million tons, up 7% compared with the same period in 2020. Internal shipments – those sent between port operations on the river – totaled 920,533 tons, down 23.7% 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.

Following are the top five shipment categories by tonnage for the first five months of 2021, with the percentage change from the same period in 2020.
• Chemical fertilizer: 1.125 million tons (up 12%)
• Sand, gravel, rock: 1.098 million tons (down 18%)
• Soybeans: 472,772 tons (up 14%)
• Iron & steel: 443,304 tons (up 5%)
• Wheat: 391,299 tons (down 13%)

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