Fertilizer, iron and steel help push Arkansas River tonnage higher in the first quarter
A 31% gain in inbound traffic pushed Arkansas River tonnage to 3.076 million tons in the first quarter of 2023, up 13.6% compared with the same period in 2022, according to the U.S. Corps of Engineers.
Inbound shipments – those coming from off the river system – totaled 1.322 million tons during the first quarter, up 31% compared with the same period in 2022. Outbound shipments in the quarter totaled 950,709 tons, up 9.4% compared with the same period in 2022. Internal shipments – those sent between port operations on the river – totaled 802,890 tons in the quarter, down 3% compared with the 2022 period.
March tonnage of 982,864 tons was just below the 987,587 tons in March 2022.
Marty Shell, president of Van Buren-based Five Rivers Distribution and a member of the Arkansas Waterways Commission, said recent months have been good for port operators.
“First quarter of 2023 has been busy. I’m starting to see a little slow down on the grain and feed side of tonnage and hope to see that rebound in the third and fourth quarters of this year. Barge rates are still high, but rail and truck rates are leveling out and barge should follow. The uptick in tonnage should reflect the confidence of customers coming back to the river since the 2019 historical flooding,” said Shell, who also operates the Port of Fort Smith.
Shell also said a rise in river traffic has broader benefits.
“All in all our navigation system is in good shape and moving 11 million tons of commerce per year and taking long distance trucks off our congested and overcrowded highways… is the most economical and environmentally friendly mode of transportation,” he said.
Following are the top five shipment categories by tonnage in the first quarter of 2023, with the percentage change from the same period on 2022.
• Sand, gravel, rock: 861,890 tons (down 4%)
• Chemical fertilizer: 849,728 tons (up 59%)
• Iron & steel: 398,416 tons (up 43%)
• Wheat: 231,250 tons (down 19%)
• Minerals and building materials: 8197,510 tons (up 41%)
Tonnage in 2022 totaled 11.011 million tons, up 2.94% compared with 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.
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.