While the effort to deepen the channel of the Lower Mississippi River gathers momentum, other channel-deepening efforts continue as well.
Both Arkansas River and Red River interests are working on feasibility studies exploring the benefits of deepening their respective navigation channels from 9 feet to 12 feet permanently. Meanwhile, the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority hopes to include money for a channel-deepening feasibility study in the upcoming Water Resources Development Act, now being developed in Congress.
“A deeper draft would enable a tremendous cost savings” for shippers, says Mitch Mays, executive director of the authority. “It’s really an economic development issue.”
In the wake of this year’s flooding, those interests are focused for now on getting the river back to its authorized 9-foot depth. Although adequate funds have been released for dredging on the Arkansas River to restore its 9-foot channel, the restoration work may last until January to get the river back into pre-flood condition, according to Bryan Day, executive director of the Port of Little Rock. Locks also need to be repaired, and survey work is ongoing. Day points out that this year’s McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (MKARNS) floods were the worst since the river was channelized in the 1940s, and the fourth worst on record.
Supporters of the rivers know that they need to demonstrate the continuing viability of the river system to customers. That means showing its resiliency. Along the length of the MKARNS and elsewhere, the Corps is becoming more adept at responding and repairing more rapidly.
Despite the floods, the Port of Little Rock will finish the year having moved more cargo than last year, according to Day. “The Port of Little Rock fared well this year; we’ll have more volume this year than last. We had very little direct damage, and the Federal Emergency Management Administration has been very helpful.”
Upriver, it was a different story; although the Tulsa Port of Catoosa itself remained open, the upper Arkansas River was closed for four months. Some fertilizer shippers essentially lost a shipping season.
Demonstrating the inland waterway system’s continuing viability will mean addressing the issue of more frequent floods across the river systems. Parts of the Tenn-Tom were bedeviled by record-breaking silting after the floods. “The Tenn-Tom wasn’t designed or built for flood control,” says Mays, “although it does have that effect.” Perhaps some ports will have to design levees and other structures to withstand more destructive and/or frequently occurring floods.
To the river systems’ promoters, the floods make the case even more urgently for the advantages of river transport, along with the necessity of adequate funding to restore and maintain water infrastructure. After all, neither road nor rail were exempt from the floods’ effects—far from it.
That means it’s more important than ever to keep the conversation about our waterways, and what’s necessary to maintain them, in front of the public.