Fort Smith, Fayetteville Mayors See Need for Deeper Arkansas River

Fort Smith, Fayetteville Mayors See Need for Deeper Arkansas River
The McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System opened to commercial traffic in 1970 and helps transport goods up the 420-foot rise in elevation between the Mississippi River and Catoosa, Okla. (Tre Baker)

The Arkansas River was one of the popular discussions at the Arkansas Municipal League’s recent 2014 Winter Meeting at the Hammons Center in Rogers.

Many mayors of Arkansas cities would like to see the river’s shipping channel deepened from 9 feet to 12 feet to facilitate more efficient barge traffic. Deeper water means heavier barges, and that means lower shipping costs, which means cheaper products for the rest of us.

One mayor said it could cost one penny to ship a loaf of bread from New Orleans to Fort Smith with a deeper channel.

Laurie Driver, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said a river barge can carry as much as 58 truck trailers, although few barges carry a full load. A deeper channel means a barge could carry 33 percent more — approximately 19 more truckloads. And a normal shipment is 12-15 barges in one tow line, Driver said.

Of course, savings on the back end comes with a price tag on the front end. The Corps of Engineers estimates that the deepening of the Arkansas River channel from east Arkansas to the Port of Catoosa in Oklahoma would cost about $188.8 million. That’s a lot of bread, and it doesn’t include the annual maintenance fees involved to make sure the shipping channel stays 12 feet deep. That’s another $2.8 million a year, Driver said.

Deepening a river channel is not as simple as scooping up stuff from the bottom, Driver said. The effects of changing the depth have to be studied first, environmental concerns have to be managed, dikes and other structures have to be built, and places have to be found to discard the dredged-up material.

Driver said the dredging costs may be $30 million, which may change by the time the dredging is scheduled, and disposal costs could run about the same amount.

The McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System runs 445 miles from the Mississippi River into Oklahoma. Large stretches of the river in Arkansas are already 12 feet or deeper and thus able to handle more and heavier barge traffic.

Driver said 308.6 miles of the river system is in Arkansas, and 268 miles of it is 12 feet or deeper. Thirty miles of it are 9 feet deep and 10 miles are “marginally” 12 feet, meaning those 10 miles would have to be dredged to guarantee the proper depth.

Congress has approved the project but not the funding, so the 12-foot channel idles on the shelf until there’s money.

Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders is a huge proponent of the 12-foot channel. Of course, Fort Smith sits at an important junction of the river and would stand to benefit from all the increased shipping.

“It would add a wide variety of logistics companies,” Sanders said. “Studies have shown the potential traffic would pay for the project. It would be huge for the state. The Arkansas River goes through all four congressional districts, and you look at all the cities that are within 25 miles of the river.”

Sanders doesn’t expect the project to be funded immediately but hopes to see it within the next three to five years.

Driver said the Corps of Engineers estimated that the work would take five years to finish — once funding is arranged.

Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan doesn’t govern from the banks of the river, but he is a vocal advocate of the project. Jordan believes that what’s good for Fort Smith (and other cities on the banks of the river) is good for the region and the entire state and nation.

“It’s a domino effect,” Jordan said. “Here is what is beautiful about it. We have the third largest waterway in the nation and have all the cities that are hooked up to the Arkansas River. It will drive the costs of operating business way down and that can be passed on to the consumer.”

Sanders said the cost of deepening Arkansas’ portions of the river is just a small part of the overall cost. Unfortunately for Arkansas, while that is true, the Corps of Engineers does not operate on a piecemeal basis.

Driver said work on the McClellan-Kerr system is an all-or-none proposal. Congress itemizes funds for each project, so the river won’t get deepened until the money is available to deepen the whole thing from the Mississippi River to the Port of Catoosa.