Dredging Drives Arkansas River Traffic

Commercial traffic on the Arkansas River is up 5.8 percent through the first five months of 2020 compared with the same period in 2019, according to figures collected by the Port of Little Rock.  Total river tonnage in 2019 was 8.48 million tons, down 22 percent from 2018, due to 2019’s flooding. While economic disruptions due to the COVID-19 crisis have hurt several categories of cargo, cargo tonnage levels are still about where they were in 2018, which was still a good year, though not record-setting, according to Bryan Day, executive director of the Port of Little Rock.

However, the increase in total tonnage seems to be driven by a 49 percent increase over the same time last year in local sand and gravel movements and movements of dredged material. Day explained to The Waterways Journal that individual ports and terminals don’t always disclose cargo tonnage figures. When news outlets began asking him about the Corps’ figures, he extrapolated. The ongoing dredging and repair of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, or MKARNS, from last year’s flood damage will take several more years before completion, he said. That includes dredging the river bottom and repair of the many damaged levees. All that activity will continue to boost river volumes of sand, gravel and aggregate.

Steel coil is still the biggest single commodity at the Port of Little Rock, even though demand has been hurt by the virus. The biggest customer for the coil is a nearby tire plant that turns it into steel-belted radial tires. Americans have been doing much less driving since coronavirus lockdown orders have taken effect.

During the first five months of 2020, MKARNS commerce totaled 4.281 million tons, up 5.8 percent from the 4.048 million tons in the first five months of 2019, according to a Corps of Engineers report posted June 10. The biggest gain in traffic was from internal shipments, or cargo shipped between ports on the river. That segment recorded 1.206 million tons, up 54 percent from the 737,991 tons in the first five months of 2019. Outbound traffic was down 18 percent, and inbound traffic was down 7.2 percent.

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The top five barged cargoes for the first five months of 2020 were sand, gravel and rock, 1.331 million tons (up 49 percent from last May); chemicals and fertilizer, 1.002 million tons (down 28 percent); wheat, 337,873 tons (up 254 percent); iron and steel, 421,312 tons (down 42 percent); and soybeans, 413,900 tons (down 17 percent).

The Arkansas River system is 445 miles long and stretches from the confluence of the Mississippi River to the Tulsa Port of Catoosa near Tulsa, Okla. The waterway has 18 locks and dams, with 13 in Arkansas and five in Oklahoma. The river also has five public ports: Pine Bluff, Little Rock and Fort Smith in Arkansas; and Muskogee and the Tulsa Port of Catoosa in Oklahoma.

“I’m bullish on the future of the system,” said Day.