Arkansas River tonnage up 10% in the first quarter, barge demand high

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,093 views 

Tonnage on the Arkansas River in the first quarter of 2.706 million tons was up 10% compared with the same period in 2021. Traffic may have been more robust if shippers had access to more barges, according to one port operator.

Inbound shipments – those coming from off the river system – totaled 1.059 million tons during the first quarter, down 8.2% compared with the same period in 2021, according to data from the U.S. Corps of Engineers. Outbound shipments totaled 869,160 tons, up 0.7% compared with the same period in 2021. Internal shipments – those sent between port operations on the river – totaled 827847 tons, up 57.6% compared with the same period in 2021.

Marty Shell, president of Van Buren-based Five Rivers Distribution which operates the port of Fort Smith and a port facility in Van Buren, said barge availability is well below demand for barges.

“I’d bet you it (tonnage increase in the first quarter) would be more than that if we had more barges. The demand for barges is at an all time high right now. We’re moving a lot of freight. With the (fuel) prices right now for trucks and rail, I think a lot of folks are turning to barges. It’s one of the craziest things I’ve seen,” Shell told Talk Business & Politics.

Shell said most of the product coming into the Fort Smith/Van Buren area is fertilizer, bulk feed for the poultry industry and steel. He said the largest product now being shipped out is grain from Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma that is headed to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s going to be tight with those (barges) for several months, … but I think we’ll ship more this year on the river than we did last year,” said Shell, who is also a member of the Arkansas Waterways Commission.

Following are the top five shipment categories by tonnage for the first quarter of 2022, with the percentage change from the same period in 2021.
• Sand, gravel, rock: 837,347 tons (up 42.7%)
• Chemical fertilizer: 533,039 tons (down 20%)
• Wheat: 286,600 tons (up 69.5%)
• Iron & steel: 242,900 tons (up 6.7%)
• Soybeans: 229,700 tons (up 40%)

Tonnage in 2021 totaled 10.696 million tons, up 4% compared with 2020. Inbound tonnage was up 12%, outbound was down 8% and internal was up 8%. River traffic in recent 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 system also has five ports: Pine Bluff, Little Rock, Fort Smith, Muskogee, Okla., and the Tulsa Port of Catoosa in Oklahoma.