A more than 16% gain in outbound shipments and gains in sand, gravel, rock and iron/steel shipments resulted in a 2.94% gain in commercial tonnage shipped on the Arkansas River in 2022, according to figures from the U.S. Corps of Engineers.
For the year, the Corps reported 11.011 millions tons, better than the 10.696 million tons in 2021. Despite several days of freezing temperatures, December tonnage of 887,392 tons was up 5.6% compared with 840,377 tons in December 2021.
Inbound shipments – those coming from off the river system – totaled 3.463 million tons during 2022, down 12.1% compared with the same period in 2021. Outbound shipments totaled 3.957 million tons, up 16.6% compared with 2021. Internal shipments – those sent between port operations on the river – totaled 3.591 million tons, up 6.8% compared with 2021.
Marty Shell, president of Van Buren-based Five Rivers Distribution and a member of the Arkansas Waterways Commission, said 2022 was a good year with the port operations in Fort Smith and Van Buren still seeing recovery from the historic 2019 flooding.
“We finished strong. It was a good productive year. We’re still worried about the recessionary signs that are coming from the (Federal Reserve). … The first quarter is looking weak, but we think the year 2023, overall, will be another good year,” Shell said.
He said inbound steel, inbound fertilizer and inbound bulk feed for poultry and cattle were the drivers behind increased activity in the Fort Smith and Van Buren port operations his company manages. He also said some of the business that returned in 2022 was business that stopped when the Arkansas River flooded in 2019.
“You don’t just flip on the switch and it all comes back. You really have to work at it to get that business back. It could take five to 10 years to fully recover from what happened in 2019,” he said.
Bryan Day, executive director of the Port of Little Rock, said the port was busy in December compared to previous months.
“December’s activity across the port’s docks was very good. We bounced back from previous months of low water, lock closures, etc.,” Day noted in a report.
He said the port handled 434 barges in 2022, with almost 649,000 tons, which was up 33% compared with 326 barges with 484,000 net tons handled in 2021.
Following are the top five shipment categories on the river by tonnage in 2022, with the percentage change from 2021.
• Sand, gravel, rock: 3.962 million tons (up 6.1%)
• Chemical fertilizer: 2.066 million tons (down 1.5%)
• Iron & steel: 1.139 million tons (up 12.8%)
• Wheat: 951,158 tons (down 8.5%)
• Soybeans: 842,536 tons (down 11.1%)
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.