Between flood and drought, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has had its hands — and dredgers and earth-movers — full trying to keep the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers navigable.
The good news is that on Friday, the Corps of Engineers released a statement that recent rains have been sufficient to ensure navigation through mid-February, even if there isn’t any additional rain between now and then.
The second week of January saw more than 10 inches of rain in some spots in the Mississippi watershed north of St. Louis, according to a Corps news release. That added to some snow melt eased conditions in the vital waterway, which has experienced low-water slowdowns since mid-2012.
Ironically, the inherent navigation problems associated with drought conditions were compounded by extensive flooding in 2011. Floods not only bring high water levels and dangerous water flow rates; they also bring sediment and debris that remain behind when the water level drops.
For the past nine months, the Corps of Engineers has overseen dredging operations from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico.
Working seven days a week, the Corps removed more than 29 million cubic yards of sediment, enough according to another Corps news release, to fill 1,333,333 dump trucks — or enough to fill more than six Louisiana Superdomes at the weight of 92 Empire State Buildings.
The Corps also has been at work removing rock formations to maintain a 9-foot-deep channel near Thebes, Ill., where it deepened the navigation channel by two feet in three weeks.
Keeping the Mississippi River open to free navigation, north and south of St. Louis, is key to keeping Arkansas fiscally fit. The McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System averages 12 million tons of commodities, valued at $2 billion to $3 billion, shipped annually, according to the Corps.
One of the things that makes Arkansas popular with industry is the easy access to multiple modes of transportation: air, rail, interstate and river. The Arkansas and Mississippi rivers are key parts of that package, providing easy, affordable shipping for appropriate commodities.
By the end of 2014, a widening project on the Panama Canal will double its capacity, allowing larger Pacific Ocean ships to have access to the Gulf of Mexico and East Coast ports. Those ships will pass both ways through the canal, and that means raw materials and finished products shipped on the Mississippi will have newly simplified access to Pacific ports.
It’s imperative that those vital shipping lanes be kept free, whatever the changes in weather.
In the meantime, the $183 million Corps of Engineers project to deepen the navigation channel of the Arkansas River to a consistent 12 feet languishes without funding. The Corps estimates that if the channel were clear to that depth from Catoosa, Okla., to the Mississippi River, it would mean $43 million in annual savings for shippers. The deepened channel would be available both to bigger and more numerous shipments.
But the Corps of Engineers, like everyone else, is counting pennies. Unless construction funds are appropriated, no further work on this project can take place.
We spend a healthy amount of time and energy advocating for more money to be spent on highways, and certainly most of us spend more time on the interstate than we do on the river. But shipping is an important part of the intermodal transportation system in Arkansas, and it’s time to pay some more attention to it, not to forget it just because barges are moving freely on the Mississippi.
— Reprinted from the Fort Smith Times Record.