Taking up cause to deepen river

An estimated 90 percent of the Arkansas River from the White River to near Fort Smith is dredged to a depth of 12 feet. However, three sections of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System in the state are about 9 feet deep.

The difference can also be spelled “J-O-B-S.”

Dozens of business executives and river port officials in Oklahoma and Arkansas met earlier this week in Fort Smith to discuss what steps can be taken to lobby the federal government to deepen the Arkansas River from 9 to 12 feet to allow barges to move 43 percent more freight on the river.

Barges must run partly empty to avoid hitting the bottom of the river channel in the shallow areas. Our shippers contend they can’t offer competitive shipping prices to compete with companies on the lower Mississippi and Ohio rivers, where the channel is 12 feet deep or deeper and barges can move fully loaded.

All differences between the representatives of the two states were put aside when the decision was made for a full court press to lobby Congress, the Army Corps of Engineers and elected officials in the two states.

The dredging project was authorized by Congress in 2004, but our lawmakers never got around to appropriating the money for the project – an estimated $180 million.

Considering the state of the economy and partisan bickering in Congress, the odds of lawmakers approving a $180 million appropriation for the project are slim to none.

There is always a possibility the project could be moved to a deauthorization list, but that should not happen before 2018, the Corps says.

There is a legislative back door approach that might work. That would require lawmakers from the two states to push for a bill directing the Corps to maintain a 12-foot channel in the navigation system anywhere it is – or ever was – 12 feet. That means authorizing funding to come from maintenance monies instead of new construction dollars.

Scott McGeorge of Pine Bluff Sand & Gravel Co. was one individual the conference turned to for advice. He has been lobbying for the deeper channel for years and noted he believes the $180 million estimate is too high.

Pine Bluff Sand & Gravel was one of the largest shippers on the Arkansas River before it reduced its Lake Dardanelle operation several years ago and relocated part of its operations to near Salem, Ky., and the Ohio River.

McGeorge understands the difference between a 9-foot and 12-foot draft for barges. The deeper channel will allow his company to compete with shippers on the Mississippi River.

That could translate into economic development and jobs in Pine Bluff with its existing harbor and along the Arkansas River. We need a 12-foot channel to be competitive. Those extra 3 feet of depth would help the Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County to maintain and attract businesses to Pine Bluff.

The Arkansas River Revival flotilla, more than a dozen boats 60-feet or more in length, were on the river in October to promote the system’s importance to the state’s economy and to urge lawmakers that the river channel be deepened from the Mississippi River to the Port of Catoosa near Tulsa, Okla.

The river is an economic engine for Southeast Arkansas and much of the state. It’s vital to our farming economy, businesses and industry, in addition to playing important tourism and recreation roles.

Perhaps we need to simplify the lobbying in Washington so members of Congress can understand: We shouldn’t ask for 3 feet, but just mere 36 inches.