President Joe Biden’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2022 includes $149 million for the Three Rivers Project, which officials say would prevent an economically devastating shutdown of the 50-year-old McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System.
In addition, if that budget is approved as is, deepening the waterway system’s channel from 9 feet to 12 feet would be studied. State Commerce Secretary Mike Preston told Arkansas Business that deepening the channel would allow more kinds of ships and cargo to traverse the system, so Arkansas would benefit from additional shipping and trade opportunities.
But the Three Rivers Project is about shoring up the McClellan-Kerr system for the future, not expanding it.
The project was recommended in a $3 million feasibility study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that was released in 2018. The study was half funded by the state and half funded by the federal government, with the Arkansas Waterways Commission agreeing to be the local sponsor of it.
The project focuses on where the Arkansas, Mississippi and White rivers meet in southeast Arkansas. The 445-mile McClellan-Kerr system starts there and continues to Catoosa, Oklahoma.
If the project is funded, a new stone containment structure would be built, two openings would be added, and the “Melinda Structure” would be removed, as recommended in the study. The Melinda Structure is the large human-made levee that keeps the rivers separated, Little Rock Port Authority Executive Director Bryan Day said. The study notes that the structure is in poor condition.
The goal of the project is to prevent a cutoff, or new water course, from forming between the Arkansas and White rivers. The formation of a cutoff has become increasingly likely due to flooding and erosion, according to the study. The navigability of the system would be hampered if that happens.
The project has been in the pre-construction, engineering and design phase; construction is expected to take several years.
This year, funding for Three Rivers Project construction was among recommendations submitted for the Biden administration’s FY2022 budget. Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon, chief of engineers and commanding general of the Army Corps of Engineers, submitted the recommendation, and it made the cut.
The next step is congressional approval; Congress has until Sept. 30 to pass new spending bills and avoid a partial federal government shutdown on Oct. 1.
Day and Preston said the state’s congressional delegation is on board. Day expects to have news about the project by the end of this summer. Preston didn’t want to speculate on what Congress will do or when. “The ideal timeline is it would have been done yesterday. We’ll take it as soon as we can get it,” Preston said. He also said last month’s 50th anniversary of the McClellan-Kerr system had given officials the opportunity to promote the Three Rivers Project. When the system opened in 1971, it was the largest civil works project ever undertaken by the Army Corps of Engineers, according to the study.
Day said at an event marking the 50-year milestone that a billion-dollar investment was made back then in a system that now pumps about $1.5 billion into the central Arkansas economy every three to five years. He called that a good return on investment.
If what the project aims to prevent occurs, Preston said, navigation on the McClellan-Kerr system would be halted for at least six months as infrastructure is repaired, replaced or added. The system transports about $3.5 billion (approximately 12 million tons) worth of commodities to and from ports in Arkansas and Oklahoma each year, according to the study. The estimated economic impact of a shutdown is about $2 million per day, Preston said.
Day said, “If we lose the mouth of the river at Three Rivers, you would not be able to move barge traffic up and down. And, if it was shut down for an extended period of time — six months, a year, two years, three years, whatever it would take to put it back together — the Arkansas River as a commercially navigable stream would become irrelevant, and industry would close and relocate. That’s how important this project is.”
He said that the project will become more expensive over time, and the cost of it has been just one barrier to undertaking the long-envisioned project. Day said other barriers include infrastructure not being a national priority, as it is now, and the Corps of Engineers being “drastically underfunded for the last 15 or 20 years.”
This project was not on anyone’s radar a decade ago, he said, but discussions began in earnest about five years ago.
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Transportation upgraded the McClellan-Kerr system from a “Connector” system to “Corridor” system as part of the Maritime Administration’s America’s Marine Highway Program, putting it in the same category as other major inland waterways such as the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, according to the 2018 study.
However, the project has been considered even longer, although it didn’t always bear the Three Rivers moniker. The Army Corps of Engineers conducted another feasibility study in 2005, called the “Arkansas-White Cutoff General Reevaluation Study” or Ark-White Study.
But, in 2009, the agency recommended no action be taken because it was “unable to identify a long-term solution that was environmentally acceptable under authorities and funding available at the time” then, according to the 2018 study. The recent study said the new planning process it used “delivers solutions that are economically feasible and environmentally acceptable.”
Day said, “I think the Arkansas business community … maybe they don’t fully understand the incredible economic impact of the Arkansas River. It supports over 50,000 jobs a year. It takes tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of trucks off the interstate. It moves commodities that you couldn’t afford to move on the roadway.
“So what I would tell the business community is that this is an incredible asset that states all over the nation would love to have, and we just have to keep telling the story to the policymakers, the elected officials, that it’s an important resource that needs to be maintained just like our roads and bridges.”