Ports & Terminals

Port of Little Rock Celebrates 60th Anniversary

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The famous opening sentence of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities could well apply to the Port of Little Rock, Ark.

Part of the “best” happened in the four or five months just before this year’s flood, when the 60-year-old port broke several records for the amount of cargo moved. Through the first three months of 2019, the Little’ Rock’s docks saw a year-to-year increase of 58 barges (138 in 2019 versus 80 in 2018)—a 72.5 percent increase in activity—while the 209,000 year-to-date tons handled was up 70 percent year-to-year with over 86,000 tons additional (WJ, April 17).

The worst? Although every river system shared some pain, the Arkansas River and Upper Missouri River probably got the worst of this spring’s record-setting rains and high water. Several levees failed, flooding the communities of Dardanelle, Fort Smith and Toad Suck. Hundreds of Arkansas families lost homes.

Although limited traffic is allowed on the river, it is still not at full capacity and may not be for 6 to 8 more weeks, according to Bryan Day, executive director of the Port of Little Rock. That’s because the water is still too high to allow the surveys that will determine where the Corps of Engineers does the dredging that will restore the river channels. Until then, river operators operate at their own risk, the Corps has warned.

Sign up for Waterway Journal's weekly newsletter.Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest inland marine news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville estimated that local businesses lost $23 million a day for every day the flooded Arkansas River was closed. Burns Park along the river, where Day likes to jog, is covered in mud and silt, he said.

Nevertheless, in the face of all this, a sizable crowd of 292 people turned out to help the Port of Little Rock celebrate its 60th anniversary. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson spoke, as well as Mack McClarty, an Arkansas native who served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff in the White House and as special envoy to the Americas. Union Pacific Chairman, President and CEO Lance Fritz was also a panel member.

At the event, Hutchison announced the formation of a 25-person levee task force to examine how to strengthen the levee system and anticipate the next floods.

Day points out that Little Rock wasn’t the hardest-hit of the Arkansas River ports. Of the 13 ports and terminals along the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, “Unfortunately our colleagues in Fort Smith [Ark.] and Muskogee [Okla.] appear to have gotten the worst of the flooding and we are all pulling for them,” he said.

And yet Day believes “the best” was shown even during the toughest days of the high water. He had high praise for the communication of the Corps, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other federal agencies. “They did an amazing job of using social media to let us know when and where the rains would come and the waters would rise, allowing us to evacuate people. The information flow was incredible. I am convinced that it saved lives. Vessel operators, industry, local and federal authorities really came together in a way that will provide valuable lessons for many other areas when the next extreme high water event comes.
“I sure hope we don’t have one of these every year,” Day told The Waterways Journal, “but I am sure I will see another one like this in my career at the port.”

Day believes that the factors that led to the record increase in cargo movements before the high water remain in place and will continue to attract shippers. “This was the fourth largest flood event on the Arkansas River, and the largest since the lock and dams were put in place. And they worked; they did what they were supposed to do. It could have been a lot worse.”

“People from 23 different counties, about a third of all the counties in the state, come to work in Little Rock each day,” he said. “The port contributes $500 million a year to the local economies in central Arkansas. I just don’t think people are going to give up on the system.”

Photos and videos from the panel discussion can be found here.