Arkansas River tonnage up more than 3%; Hurricane Ida damages downstream infrastructure

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 601 views 

An expected rebound in river traffic emerged in recent months, with tonnage through September up 3.4% compared with the same period in 2020. Impacts from Hurricane Ida and the closure of a lock and dam for maintenance reduced the extent of the rebound.

Tonnage shipped on the river during the first nine months of 2021 totaled 7.942 million tons, up 3.4% compared with the 7.679 million tons during the same period in 2020. September shipments totaled 825,577 tons, up from the 768,285 tons in September 2020.

Inbound shipments – those coming from off the river system – totaled 2.981 million tons during the first nine months of the year, up 13% compared with the same period in 2020. Outbound shipments totaled 2.527 million tons, down 4% compared with the same period in 2020. Internal shipments – those sent between port operations on the river – totaled 2.433 million tons, up 0.5% compared with the same period in 2020.

Bryan Day, executive director of the port of Little Rock, said barge traffic was halted into the second week of September with the closure of the David D. Terry Lock and Dam for maintenance. He said barge activity at the state’s largest port is down for the year.

“For the year, the Port of Little Rock has loaded or unloaded 265 barges. This is down about seven percent from last year. The Port has handled about 395,000 net tons of cargo compared to about 435,000 net tons of cargo handled for the same period last year,” Day said in a note to Talk Business & Politics.

Marty Shell, president of Van Buren-based Five Rivers Distribution and a member of the Arkansas Waterways Commission, said damage from Hurricane Ida will have an impact on river traffic, especially with supply chain issues challenging other transportation modes. Shell had predicted in August that tonnage numbers would improve.

“I believe Hurricane Ida caused more inland river barge and terminal damages than Hurricane Katrina did. Barge rates are surging and demand is at an all-time high right now,” said Shell, who manages port operations in Fort Smith and Van Buren. “With truck rates and rail rates climbing as well and the demand for drivers, I think you will see a lag in delivery times. And with customer demands for seasonal items like soybeans and fertilizer at an all-time high, it’s going to be a feast or famine time with products.”

River traffic in the past two years has struggled through historic flooding and an economic slowdown induced by the COVID-19 pandemic. 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.

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 nine months of 2021, with the percentage change from the same period in 2020.
• Sand, gravel, rock: 2.751 million tons (up 2%)
• Chemical fertilizer: 1.589 million tons (up 12%)
• Wheat: 912,399 tons (down 3%)
• Iron & steel: 760,404 tons (up 10%)
• Soybeans: 537,572 tons (down 25%)