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Arkansas River: Geographic Divide Connects to Markets

9 min read

Magic Springs’ looping 2,260-foot roller coaster opening this summer promises to be the ultimate thrill-seeker’s ride.

The ride, manufactured in The Netherlands by Vekoma Rides Manufacturing, crossed the Atlantic Ocean to New Orleans by ship, where it was transferred to barges for the trip up the Mississippi River to the Arkansas River.

At the end of November 2003, the seven barges docked at Little Rock. It took approximately 50 tractor-trailer rigs to transport the roller coaster parts to the Hot Springs amusement park.

Just another day on the Arkansas River.

The Arkansas River is one of four waterway systems in the state, said Keith Garrison, executive director of the Arkansas Waterways Commission. The other navigable waterways are the Mississippi, White and Ouachita rivers, and the future of commerce on the Arkansas River is closely tied to the other waterways.

The McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System itself wasn’t designed for flood control, P.J. Spaul, spokesman for the Little Rock District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said.

Instead it forms a $1.2 billion water-powered interstate that can handle up to 35 million tons of freight a year. A barge can’t deliver televisions to a retailer or eggs to a grocer’s doorstep, but a single barge can hold as much raw cargo as 60 trucks or 15 rail cars and can move it at a fraction of the cost.

Waterways have created 17,000 jobs in the state, and the total economic impact has been estimated at $811 million annually by a University of Arkansas study completed by the Mack Blackwell Institute.

The waterway system is so efficient that the average resident doesn’t realize the amount of cargo moving up and down the river, Garrison said. It doesn’t add to noise pollution and emits fewer environmental pollutants than its grounded counterparts, Garrison said.

It is also the safest way to transport chemicals with little danger to residents. In fact, Garrison said a couple of years ago an entire nuclear reactor was shipped up the Arkansas River to Oklahoma.

“I believe the increasing congestion on highways and rails will ensure that Arkansas’ waterways will grow and remain a vital part of our state’s transportation system,” he said.

However, Garrison said the state is not utilizing the waterway system to its fullest capacity and there’s ample room for growth — especially if the cash-strapped state government could afford to add to the 11 public ports currently in operation.

“There was a Port Development Fund passed by the Legislature in 2001, but the money has never been put in the fund,” Garrison said.

By contrast, Oklahoma’s Legislature funded a $20 million public port at Catoosa, and it does more business in a year than all of Arkansas’ ports combined.

The state does, however, take advantage of the efficiencies offered by its inland waterway. For instance, the Arkansas State Highway & Transportation Department used the waterway system to bring crushed stone to Russellville, a commodity that would have been far more expensive to move by truck, Garrison said.

“It takes a penny to move a ton-mile on a waterway,” Garrison said.

By comparison, it costs approximately two-and-a-half cents per-ton-mile by rail and 5.3 cents by semi-tractor trailer, the commission figures. There are indirect savings as well. River barges don’t cause wear and tear on the state’s highways or add to traffic congestion, Garrison said.

Currently the Arkansas State Highway & Transportation Department is conducting a joint study with the Waterways Commission. Randy Ort, public affairs officer for the transportation department, said the Arkansas Public River Assessment Study is looking at existing port facilities and evaluating potential port and slack-water harbor sites on the river. As part of the study, local industries are being queried about their use or potential use of port facilities and water transportation, Ort said.

“Our job is to look at the overall transportation needs of Arkansas with an emphasis on the highway system,” Ort said. The department plays a role in the “connectivity” between various modes of transportation, including highways, airports, rails and rivers. It has worked with the intermodal groups across the state including Fort Smith, Russellville and Little Rock.

“We hope to find the best balance and most efficient way of moving goods and people safely,” Ort said.

Garrison, who has been executive director of the Waterways Commission for two years, said Arkansas is one of 29 states that have direct access to an inland waterway system, and all 75 counties in Arkansas are within 65 miles of the state’s 1,000 miles of navigable waterways. The Arkansas River’s navigation system is nearly half of that total.

Recent figures aren’t available, but in 1999, $2.7 billion worth of cargo was transported on the state’s rivers — including raw materials such as grain, corn, sand, gravel, petroleum, timber and steel and finished products such as fertilizer, pet food, paper, chemicals and wood products, Garrison said.

Nearly 8 million tons of cargo were shipped out of Arkansas that same year using the state’s waterways, and another 7 million tons were shipped in, he said.

Deep Water

In order to keep barge traffic moving year-round, the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System maintains the river level at a minimum of nine feet. If Congress has its way, that’s going to increase to 12 feet, Garrison said.

“It is the most dramatic and important recent development on the river,” said Wally Geiringer, the developer of the first public port in Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

A consistently deeper channel would allow a barge to sit lower in the water, and that means more cargo could be moved on the same barge. A barge with a 9-foot draft carries 1,527 tons fully loaded. A 12-foot draft would allow the same barge to carry 2,184 tons — a 43 percent increase at little or no additional cost to operate.

This would create a seamless cargo transition between the Arkansas navigation system and the Mississippi River, where a 12-foot draft already exists, Geiringer said. That would reduce transportation costs by eliminating the need to unload or reload barges when moving from one river to the other.

But there would be up-front costs, of course. Ninety-six percent of the navigation system in Arkansas and 88 percent of the Arkansas River system in Oklahoma is already at 12 feet. Preparing the remainder is projected to cost $40 million-$50 million, which Geiringer called “a drop in the bucket compared to the overall cost of the system.”

Still Developing

As soon as Mitchell T. Eggburn, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager, stepped from his pickup truck on top of the cofferdam enclosing the Montgomery Point Lock and Dam construction site approximately 110 feet below, he began explaining how the temporary structure was rerouting the White River.

Montgomery Point is the last major structure on the McClellan-Kerr navigation system, Eggburn said, and is located about a quarter-mile from the confluence of the White and Mississippi rivers. It was designed to provide adequate navigational depth in the river entrance when the Mississippi River is slow.

When completed, the price tag for the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System will reach $1.2 billion. However, before the final phase was finished, the Corps ran into a major problem.

The entire 445-mile McClellan-Kerr system — 18 locks and dams controlling navigation between the Port of Catoosa near Tulsa and the Mississippi River — is in danger, according to an Army Corps of Engineers environmental impact and feasibility study.

Spaul, the Corps spokesman, said that naturally occurring cutoffs have been trying to form because of the elevation differences between the White and Arkansas rivers in an area west of Montgomery Point between the Trusten Holder Wildlife Management Area and Big Island in Desha and Arkansas counties. Ultimately, the Corps believes, the convergence of these two rivers would disrupt or halt the flow of barge traffic up and down the Arkansas River.

“If the rivers joined, traffic couldn’t get on and off the Mississippi River,” Spaul said. A loss of the navigation system would economically impact Arkansas ports like Little Rock and Pine Bluff, Spaul said, affecting industries such as agriculture, timber, hydroelectric power and recreation.

“We are taking some measures, but it is an ongoing issue,” Spaul said.

Side Benefits

Contrary to popular belief, the locks and dams along the Arkansas River will not prevent it from flooding, Spaul said.

“In times of high water, the gates are lifted and it’s as if no locks or dams were there,” he said. “This river can still flood.”

There are, however, flood-reduction components of the system that reduce the frequency and severity of flooding along the Arkansas, he said. Eleven reservoir lakes in Oklahoma and two in Arkansas can be used to store water from heavy rains. Farther downriver, a levee system is the primary protection from floodwaters.

The navigation system has also created the opportunity for cost-efficient electric generation, although that was never a primary goal.

“When it rains in Oklahoma, it has the potential to generate electricity 11 times before it gets to the Mississippi River,” Spaul said.

The most obvious side benefit of the McClellan-Kerr system has been the recreational opportunities it has created for boating and fishing, Spaul said.

The Corps has built 77 parks along the Arkansas River. While the Corps still maintains and operates 48, the department leases out the balance. For instance Murray and Burns parks are still owned by the Corps but leased by Little Rock and North Little Rock, and Lake Dardanelle State Park is leased by the state. In February, the Corps announced that budget cuts would force closing or operational cutbacks in dozens of its parks. Still, Corps boat launches are the primary access to the river for recreational users who can thank the navigation system for creating a safe boating environment, said Arkansas Game & Fish Commissioner Mike Freeze of England.

“There may be some inconvenience when a boat is waiting for a lock to open,” Freeze said, but the benefits greatly outweigh the wait. Otherwise there is little interaction between barge traffic and boaters or recreational fishermen.

According to Keith Stephens, editor of the Game & Fish Commission’s Arkansas Outdoors, there are projects in the works to improve the recreational use of the river.

“We’re working with the Corps on a rehabilitation of the Arkansas River,” Stephens said. The original channelization destroyed the spawning areas of the prized bigmouth bass, so the Corps notched the dikes to create secluded spawning areas for the fish.

“It’s working extremely well,” Stephens said, and he means for both river traffic and the fish. The Arkansas River boasts the largest one-day bass catch on record and continues to be a national draw.

In addition to bass, the river is home to channel and giant blue catfish, sauger, brim, crappie and paddlefish.

“There’s a lot of money to be made from paddlefish caviar in the Arkansas River,” Stephens said.

Freeze said that the closing of commercial caviar operations in the Caspian Sea has made paddlefish caviar a growing enterprise. The commission passed strict commercial regulations this past year.

“It’s a resource that must be harvested wisely,” Freeze said.

Cultural Icon

When Little Rock and North Little Rock decided to rebuild and revitalize their downtown areas, city officials turned to the Arkansas River as a rallying point with plans for the Junction Bridge Collaborative and the River Trail winding along its north and south banks.

Even the William J. Clinton Presidential Library complex joined in with plans to convert the old Rock Island Railroad Bridge into a second pedestrian crossing. While playing off Clinton’s “Bridge to the 21st Century” campaign theme, the foot bridges and walking trail symbolically join two cities that have historically prided themselves on their independence.

Riverfest, an annual event for the past 27 years, has never lost sight of the important Arkansas River, and neither have its attendees, who enjoy an annual fireworks display from its grassy banks.

The Little Rock River Market staked its claim on the river as well. On market days in season, farmers sell their produce the old-fashioned way against a backdrop of barges moving in virtual silence and pleasure boaters speeding past.

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