Oklahoma’s Inland Waterway: Navigating the Benefits and Challenges of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System

When I mention to folks that my work involves ports, they often remark, "oh, on the coast." To their surprise, I inform them that, "no, right here in Oklahoma we have a port facility capable of handling shipping vessels that can travel in the oceans." In Oklahoma, we have an inland waterway, the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, better known as the MKARNS, which follows the Verdigris River from Catoosa, Oklahoma (River Mile 445), along the Arkansas River to the Mississippi River (River Mile 0), and then on the Mississippi River for another 500 miles to New Orleans. Our inland ports and waterways are critical to our country's domestic transportation systems.

A Transportation Marvel

In several areas of MKARNS, the waterway has a maximum depth of 10 feet, limiting barges to 75 percent of load capacity (nine-foot depth), which equates to about 45 semi-trucks. A fully loaded standard rake barge can carry up to 60 semi-trucks worth of cargo on the Mississippi River. In comparison to land transportation, these massive loads equate to huge savings in fuel costs and reducing the wear and tear large trucks can have on our highways.

Modern technologies have also made our ports and inland waterways more viable in places you would never expect. For example, back in the day, to get a shipment of wheat from an area such as Hutchinson, Kansas, loads would be transferred from a grain elevator to rail car, to truck, to barge, each requiring a separate bill of lading. Today, shippers can create one bill of lading at a Hutchinson grain elevator for the wheat's trip all the way to New Orleans with no schedule impacts due to shipping paperwork. In essence, we have streamlined our ports and navigation systems to make them more viable and essential to the modern transportation network.

From an engineering standpoint, we have also made great strides. Several years ago, we were part of a project at the Port of Catoosa to rebuild its 300-foot-wide by 720-foot-long main dock and to refurbish the existing 200-ton overhead bridge crane. This crane had not been updated in some time and required extensive refurbishment of the crane assembly, repainting of the steel structure, bridge, and trollies; and epoxy resin repairs of cracks in the existing concrete columns. Rail spurs were designed so that the refurbished crane and a future 300-ton overhead bridge crane could harness oversized loads from rail cars and transfer them onto barges.

Even Marvels Have Their Limits

Inland port and waterway benefits don't come without their own set of challenges, however. A stretch of MKARNS from Muskogee to Catoosa is only 150 feet wide, which means it can only pass one barge tow at a time. Product flow could be much greater were the navigation system widened to its authorized 300 feet.

There's a lot of wear and tear on the locks and dams in our inland waterways that are in critical need of repair. MKARNS has 18 locks and dams on the Arkansas and Verdigris Rivers that are in need of continuous funding to ensure operation at a fully functional level. If the lock gates or tainter gates malfunction, it likely means shutting down the entire waterway upstream of the non-functioning lock and dam.

Despite some difficult engineering challenges to overcome, the majority of the obstacles faced are due to a lack of funding. In its 2017 Report Card for America's Infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave inland waterways a "D" grade. This is due to the fact that many locks and dams are well beyond their 50-year design. ASCE's studies suggest that nearly half of domestic vessels experience delays. It's important that we regularly talk to our state and federal legislatures to get the funding to the Army Corps of Engineers so that they can effectively maintain our inland port and waterway systems.

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