by Luke Jones
Posted 5/14/2012 12:00 am
Updated 2 years ago
Arkansas has four main rivers that carry freight: the Mississippi, the Arkansas, the Ouachita and the White. A fifth, the Red, is considered navigable but isn't tended by the Army Corps of Engineers.
(Click here for story on river freight trends.)
"We've been trying for years to get that extended," said Keith Garrison, executive director of the Arkansas Waterways Commission. "There's a plan, but it comes down to money and the feds."
Along the rivers are the state's ports. The Mississippi has several: A pair at Helena-West Helena, one at Osceola, one at West Memphis and one at Yellow Bend near McGehee.
Kenny Gober at Yellow Bend said his port was seeing grain, wood products and rock for highway construction pass through. He's also working with the Arkansas Louisiana & Mississippi and Arkansas Midland railroads to gain rail access to Yellow Bend. If that happens, Gober said, it would mean the port could move pipes to Louisiana via North Dakota.
The Ouachita has two ports, at Camden and Crossett.
On the White River, barges ship grain from Bunge Ltd. facilities, but Garrison said a lack of federal maintenance had caused a downward spiral in that area. "It contributes to less use of the waterway, which contributes to the Corps saying they won't move much tonnage there, so let's cut back on maintenance," Garrison said.
The White River is more viable near Augusta thanks to the installation of wing dikes, rock formations that reduce collection of sediment. This development may help reverse the trend seen at Newport, Garrison said.
The Arkansas River has some of the most highly used ports in the state. The Port of Pine Bluff is the state's original port, according to Lu Ann Nisbett, president and CEO of the Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County, which also oversees the port. The port did suffer some damage during the recession when Allied Tube & Conduit deserted its five port facilities, all of which remain empty.
Nisbett is hoping that the 2011 three-eighths-cent economic development sales tax will help get the empty port buildings reoccupied. "We'd like to see a lot more coming through our port, and I'm sure everybody else would feel the same way," Nisbett said.
Little Rock has the largest and most active river port.
Little Rock Port Authority Executive Director Paul Latture said 2010 was the port's best year on record, 2011 was a half-percent away from that and 2012 is shaping up to be better than 2010.
Latture listed Welspun pipe, fertilizer, wire rod coil, frac sand and aluminum ingots as frequent port cargo, and said most of it was recession-proof.
"Farmers need fertilizer; drillers need sand and so on," he said. The increase in gasoline prices, though inconvenient, hasn't hurt the industry near Little Rock, Latture said.
"In general, truck and rail traffic, as well as barge traffic, is up out there," Garrison said. "Employment is good. It's really an anomaly out there, compared to the rest of the nation."
The last major Arkansas River ports are out west, at Van Buren and Fort Smith. The Port of Van Buren is owned by Five Rivers Distribution, which also operates the Port of Fort Smith. Marty Shell is president of that organization.
"Tonnage was strong for the first quarter of 2012," Shell said. "We hope there's a light at the end of the tunnel as manufacturing seems to be perking up. We are hampered by high fuel prices, causing customers to divert to other modes of transportation."
Most of the cargo in that area, Shell said, is bulk steel, grains and coal.
"We're optimistic," he said. "We're looking toward the future. Tonnage has grown, and the terminal is getting busier and busier with people realizing waterborne is the cheapest mode moving to and from the gulf."