State’s river trans­port near a fork

Barge traf­fic in­creas­ing as in­fra­struc­ture keeps ag­ing

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - DAL­TON LAFERNEY

Al­most 12 mil­lion tons of com­modi­ties trickle through the Arkansas River each year — a fig­ure that likely will grow as trade of­fi­cials an­nounced ear­lier this month they have fi­nal­ized a pro­to­col to al­low for the first-ever ship­ments of U.S.-grown rice to China.

Cen­sus data show about $223 mil­lion worth of rice left the state in 2016. Over­all agri­cul­tural ex­ports pro­duced about $3.7 bil­lion for the state’s econ­omy. But mov­ing agri­cul­tural ex­ports by wa­ter is chal­leng­ing as much of the in­fra­struc­ture is out­dated.

Most locks and dams along the state’s wa­ter­ways are about 50 years old. Pre­ven­tive main­te­nance has turned into crit­i­cal re­pairs. A list of main­te­nance needs drawn up by the U.S. Army Corps of En­gi­neers in 2016 in­cluded 16 “crit­i­cal” sit­u­a­tions along the McClel­lanKerr river sys­tem, which ac­counts for the Arkansas River.

The Corps is wait­ing on Congress to ap­prove a new bud­get and for Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump to an­nounce his U.S. in­fra­struc­ture re­vi­tal­iza­tion plan.

Gil Woot­ten, tech­ni­cal sup­port chief of oper­a­tions for the Corps in Lit­tle Rock, over­sees main­te­nance units in Arkansas’ por­tion of the Arkansas River.

“I think from what we’ve seen over the years, our in­fra­struc­ture is ag­ing, so our back­log [of fixes has] in the past 10 years dou­bled,” he said.

In the mean­time, the

state of Arkansas is not stop­ping. Work­ers along the river start about 7 a.m. daily to un­load and reload barge-fulls of wire and grains, and swing cranes of scrap metal into trac­tor-trail­ers. Some work­ers can be found putting in time on Satur­days to make up for de­layed ship­ments which were caused by spring flood­ing.

To keep ship­ping at a steady pace, the Corps keeps in close con­tact with lo­gis­tics com­pa­nies. An­nounce­ments of forth­com­ing re­pairs are dis­persed months — and some­times years — ahead of time.

When this hap­pens, lo­gis­ti­cians must adapt, ei­ther by load­ing more cargo onto trucks, or pack­ing down barges more heav­ily than nor­mal. Re­pairs are in­creas­ingly ur­gent be­cause more busi­nesses are look­ing at Arkansas as a place to make money. New busi­ness means more trad­ing, which trans­lates to more work — and po­ten­tially a growth in ac­tiv­ity along the rivers, state of­fi­cials hope.

When Gov. Asa Hutchin­son took of­fice in 2015, the state be­gan court­ing for­eign com­pa­nies. To­day, there are about 240 for­eign-based com­pa­nies op­er­at­ing here, ac­cord­ing to a re­port pre­pared by the state.

Mike Pre­ston, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Arkansas Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Com­mis­sion, said the state’s wa­ter­ways are vi­tal to keep­ing those com­pa­nies here. He said the com­mis­sion mar­kets Arkansas’ trans­porta­tion ca­pac­ity when selling the state to ex­ec­u­tives abroad.

“But if they can’t get that prod­uct out of the state, they have no rea­son to be here,” Pre­ston said.

Be­cause of the mag­ni­tude of global trad­ing, move­ments along sup­ply chains are planned months and years in ad­vance, so last-minute hic­cups at a lock in Arkansas can cause short­ages some­where else in the world.

“Noth­ing is de­cided to­day and moved to­mor­row,” said J.O. Nor­man, oper­a­tions man­ager of grain and barges at Bruce Oak­ley in Lit­tle Rock.

His com­pany owns about 228 barges that run in ports and rivers through­out the coun­try. What sets Arkansas apart from many other states is its river locks do not have aux­il­iary cham­bers. The cham­bers are used dur­ing main­te­nance to al­low ves­sels to con­tinue on­ward, al­beit at a smaller vol­ume and pace. In Arkansas, when a lock needs to be fixed, traf­fic stops.

The U.S. barge and tug boat in­dus­try moves about 763 mil­lion tons of cargo on av­er­age each year, ac­cord­ing to a new re­port by the Amer­i­can Wa­ter­ways Op­er­a­tors. In 2014, the year of anal­y­sis in the study, the in­dus­try drove about $19.4 bil­lion in eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity do­mes­ti­cally. More barges travel through the mid­dle part of the coun­try than the Great Lakes or West and East coast ports com­bined.

Some tow and tug com­pa­nies have turned away from some of Arkansas’ rivers. In 2012, the Corps be­gan study­ing the na­tion’s wa­ter­ways in its In­land Marine Trans­port Sys­tem re­port. Be­cause of bud­get cuts from Wash­ing­ton, the Corps used the re­sults to de­ter­mine, among other ob­jec­tives, which locks and dams were pri­or­i­ties to keep at full ca­pac­ity.

Ac­cord­ing to lock vol­ume data on the Oua­chita River, com­mer­cial ves­sel traf­fic through the Thatcher and Felsen­thal locks has dwin­dled to noth­ing since 2012. Dei­dre Smith, the new head of the Arkansas Wa­ter­ways Com­mis­sion, said the Red River in Arkansas is not nav­i­ga­ble, and com­mer­cial traf­fic through the White River is next to noth­ing. A spokesman for the Corps said the larger rivers with higher vol­umes are the pri­or­ity.

Ray­ford Will­banks of Vicks­burg, Miss., is re­tired from the Corps. Since Oc­to­ber he has been the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Oua­chita River Val­ley As­so­ci­a­tion.

“When you don’t have the full ser­vice at those locks and dams, and you don’t have the bud­get­ing for dredg­ing to make sure wa­ter­ways are open and safe, the in­dus­tries will shy away,” Will­banks said.

He noted at least three tug com­pa­nies left the Oua­chita River. Of those, only Kil­gore, Texas-based Martin Mid­stream Part­ners re­turned calls seek­ing com­ment. Doug Towns, vice pres­i­dent of the com­pany’s cross-well seg­ment, said his com­pany’s move from the Oua­chita had more to do with a pref­er­ence for pipe­line trans­porta­tion, but he said they knew the Corps would stop main­tain­ing the river to a 9-foot depth, the safety stan­dard for nav­i­ga­tion.

“It ei­ther had too much wa­ter or not enough,” he said.

The Corps’ 2018 bud­get pro­posal to Congress in­cludes about $10 mil­lion for var­i­ous projects around Arkansas. There is, how­ever, a gap in what Congress ap­proves and what it funds. For ex­am­ple, law­mak­ers have al­ready ap­proved the Arkansas River to be dug at a 12-foot depth, which would al­low ship­pers to pack more cargo onto barges, but there has not been any money al­lo­cated for such a project, said Lau­rie Driver, a Corps spokesman.

“Our fund­ing is very strict and strin­gent,” she said.

Many of the dams’ “tain­ter” gates need to be re­placed. Those are the walls that rise and let wa­ter through when a ves­sel is mov­ing through a lock. Woot­ten and Corps crews are dis­cov­er­ing more prob­lems that might not get fund­ing for two more years, the length of the fed­eral bud­get cy­cle. New prob­lems will likely sur­face in be­tween fund­ing pe­ri­ods.

For Marty Shell, the owner of Five Rivers Dis­tri­bu­tion in Van Buren, the work is per­sonal. His fa­ther started the com­pany decades ago, and to­day the pres­sure is on his work­ers to keep pace with com­pa­nies around the world. Five Rivers has an in­ter­modal port fa­cil­ity on the Arkansas River.

“They’re go­ing to work harder,” he said, “and they’re go­ing to work longer.”

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK

Glenn Rozell, a bulk han­dler, un­loads scrap re­cently at the Port of Fort Smith.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK

An over­head crane is used to un­load wire rod coils at Five Rivers Dis­tri­bu­tion in Van Buren.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK

A tow­boat push­ing six barges up the Arkansas River is vis­i­ble from the Van Buren side.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK

An over­head crane sys­tem is used to un­load wire rod coils at Five Rivers Dis­tri­bu­tion in Van Buren.

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