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3-day tour highlights river's needs

Funding, maintenance vital for waterways, workers say

By Chris Bahn

This article was published August 17, 2014 at 2:08 a.m.


Pinnacle Mountain looms behind the Interstate 430 bridge over the Arkansas River as the MV Mississippi enters the lock at Murray Lock and Dam.

Working on the Arkansas River since 1972 has given Mike Metzler a deep appreciation for the role the waterway plays in the state's economy.

Metzler, a captain for Little Rock Harbor Service Inc., is responsible for moving some of the 12 million tons and nearly $4 billion worth of commodities shipped annually through the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System. Getting others to understand the importance of the system is critical, Metzler said, while taking in the scenery near the Ozark-Jetta Taylor Lock and Dam last week as a passenger on the Motor Vessel Mississippi.

"If we don't make the Arkansas River and maintenance needs a priority, we're going to have a failure one of these days that will get people's attention," Metzler said.

Metzler joined a delegation, including members of the Mississippi River Commission, port owners, other boat pilots and representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers, as part of a three-day tour down the Arkansas River. Congress established the Mississippi River Commission in 1879 and uses members to help provide policy advice and set funding priorities for the Corps, which is tasked with maintaining the nation's waterways.

Commission members toured the Arkansas River on the MV Mississippi, a 6,300-horsepower, 58-foot-wide towboat billed as the largest in the United States. A series of meetings, stops along the river and public viewing opportunities were held to help raise awareness of the river's importance and the funding needed to keep it operational.

Much of the discussion on board the boat Aug. 12 centered on the maintenance priorities and a strategic plan for addressing those concerns. John Balgavy, the navigation system's program manager for the Little Rock District, said much of the maintenance work being done now under a five-year maintenance plan is little more than "a shave and a haircut."

Repair crews concentrate on "fixing things before they fail," but as much as $100 million of repair and replacement needs are looming within the next five years, he said. Annually, the Corps of Engineers receives about $38 million to run the system, which includes 18 locks over 450 miles of channels.

A variety of solutions, including limiting hours for recreational and commercial traffic, have been implemented over the years with varying degrees of success. Shutting down the locks for maintenance helped with the repair schedule and limiting wear and tear, but was met with criticism.

Other ways to maximize the budget include doing less-challenging jobs and short-term repairs with in-house workers, rather than contracting the work out, Balgavy told passengers on a nearly four-hour trip from Fort Smith to Ozark. While the average age of the locks on the system is 45 years old, facilities on the Arkansas River are much younger than their counterparts across the country. Some are nearing a century old and are in desperate need of repair, meaning they get priority.

"Those are major rehab projects," Balgavy said. "We realize we're part of a deferable pot of money where big decisions have to be made. At some point, if the federal government can't afford it, you start looking at private-public partnerships to fund it. People that operate along the system are always ready, willing and able to help, but can they help at $15 or $20 million a year? I don't think so at this point."

Finding funding for maintenance is among the chief priorities for Gene Higginbotham, executive director of the Arkansas Waterways Commission. Perhaps more important than routine upkeep, he said, is securing the $100,000 needed to fund a study on the area where the Arkansas, Mississippi and White rivers meet.

Concerns exist regarding how the three waterways feed into each other and affect water levels of the other rivers and low-lying land nearby. Studying the area and finding a long-term solution is a must, Higginbotham said. A breach there would shut down the system for months and have a significant economic effect.

Authorization for deepening channels on the river from 9 to 12 feet has been granted, but funding isn't there at this time. Making the river deeper is one of the areas where private investors could help, but before that happens, Higginbotham said, there are other needs that take precedence.

"The entire system faces the three-rivers challenge and the ability of losing navigation for a certain amount of time," Higginbotham said. "We need to address that first, then we need to take care of operations and make sure all of our locks are operational and have less chance of failure."

Included on the trip last week was Lake Village native Sam Angel, who is in his 36th year on the Mississippi River Commission. Much of his time is spent on issues pertaining to the Mississippi River. But as an Arkansan, and because the Arkansas River is one of the largest feeders into the Mississippi, he understands what is at stake for the Corps and others looking at how to fund and maintain river commerce.

"If we have a major failure when grain is coming out," Angel said. "it shuts it down. It could be a disaster."

Further underscoring the importance of the river is a series of meetings this week in Fort Smith, separate from the recent Mississippi River Commission trip. Arkansas Sen. John Boozman and his counterpart, Sen. Jim Inhofe from Oklahoma, will be in Fort Smith on Tuesday to meet with the Regional Intermodal Transportation Authority. Discussion topics include the deepening of the river and an inland harbor.

Metzler said he believes the Corps and others have done their best to prevent any breakdowns or potential stoppages along the Arkansas River. Since the 1970s, he's watched as more is done with less, but Metzler said he fears what will happen if more funding or investment isn't secured.

"I think they're doing the best you can do trying to get more work out of less money, more work out of less people," Metzler said. "I'm wondering if we aren't close to the end. Haven't we got all the money and people squeezed as much as we can?"

SundayMonday Business on 08/17/2014

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