Arkansas River commercial tonnage up 19.5% in September, up 4.5% year-to-date

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 625 views 

Steel shipments at the Port of Fort Smith.

Commercial tonnage shipped on the Arkansas River in the first nine months of 2022 is up 4.5%, with September tonnage up 18.5% and outbound tonnage up 54.3%, according to figures from the U.S. Corps of Engineers.

September tonnage of 995,323 tons was up 19.5% compared with September 2021.

Inbound shipments – those coming from off the river system – totaled 2.638 million tons during the first nine months, down 12% compared with the same period in 2021. Outbound shipments totaled 2.936 million tons, up 16% compared with the same period in 2021. Internal shipments – those sent between port operations on the river – totaled 2.728 million tons, up 12% compared with the same period in 2021.

Marty Shell, president of Van Buren-based Five Rivers Distribution and a member of the Arkansas Waterways Commission, said the third quarter of 2022 was busier than the same quarter in 2021 thanks in part to national and global issues.

“With a threat of a railroad strike, the congestion of trucking, and the Biden administration relief of steel tariffs with some countries we are seeing more volumes of products at both (Fort Smith port) and (Van Buren port),” said Shell, who manages port operations in Fort Smith and Van Buren.

He also said drought conditions have changed river traffic patterns. The Mississippi River is getting close to all-time, historic lows. Closures stopped a reported 2,000 barges and about 100 towboats. The river gauge at Osceola is now at its lowest since the all-time low record was set in 1988, according to CNN. The river’s level near Memphis is the third lowest ever recorded, and is predicted to fall to its second lowest ever as drought conditions are predicted in the coming weeks by the National Weather Service.

“With the drought conditions we have started our grain deliveries to market sooner this year. Our lock and dam system is benefiting this region and multiple states for delivery of products with the low water conditions on the lower Mississippi River as well our locks are able to create pools that allow us to keep navigation and commerce moving North and South down our system,” Shell said.

Following are the top five shipment categories by tonnage for the first nine months of 2022, with the percentage change from the same period in 2021.
• Sand, gravel, rock: 3 million tons (up 9%)
Chemical fertilizer: 1.47 million tons (down 8%)
• Iron & steel: 885,600 tons (up 16%)
• Wheat: 881,200 tons (down 3%)
• Minerals/Building materials: 546,500 tons (up 50%)

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