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Flooding that stalled barges on the Arkansas River last month has retreated enough to allow limited traffic in and out of the Port of Little Rock.

But barges still cannot be pushed upriver from the state's capital because the high water and fast flows from the flooding disrupted the navigation channel in that section of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System.

The navigation channel at Dardanelle is less than 3 feet deep in places, said Bryan Day, the executive director of the Little Rock Port Authority.

"Essentially north of Dardanelle is not operating," Day said Wednesday at the port authority board's monthly meeting. "There are places in the river north of Dardanelle that are less than 3 feet deep. It normally drafts at 9. The river is still moving so fast, the [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] has not been able to survey it."

The historic flooding on the Arkansas River was triggered, in part, by a Corps of Engineers' decision in Oklahoma to unleash a volume of water downstream that the river was unable to hold. That water was the result of torrential rains that filled flood-reduction lakes in Oklahoma and threatened their dams.

The navigation system is a series of 18 locks and dams and a 250-foot-wide navigation channel that has a minimum depth of 9 feet. The navigation system runs on the Arkansas River between the Mississippi River in southeast Arkansas across the state into Oklahoma.

The system typically handles about 1 million tons of cargo per month, but flooding slowed barge traffic to a trickle in May and June. The system handled 150,318 tons in May and 212,708 tons last month, according to the Corps.

The Little Rock port handled just 14 barges in June. It usually averages 50-60 barges a month.

"We don't have great news to report, but we are operational," said Fred Long, general manager for LSI, which is under contract to load and unload the barges for the port.

Traffic into the port is limited to four barges per tow rather than the typical eight barges because of the fast flows, which remain at 160,000 cubic feet per second, he said.

That figure is well below the flooding peak of 500,000 cubic feet per second, but the rate remains far above the 50,000 cubic feet per second that is common during the summer months. The river isn't expected to fall to 50,000 cubic feet per second until early next month.

All 18 locks are operable, but the system won't return to normal operation until dredging activities pick up. The lack of dredging remains a sore point for river interests, said Deidre Smith, director of the Arkansas Waterways Commission.

"We're a little concerned the dredge has not moved out of Fort Smith yet," she said. "The currents are still flowing too fast."

The shallow section at mile 222 of the river system, just north of Dardanelle, also is a concern, Smith said.

"The normal channel they use is shoaled in," she said. "They're trying to find an alternate path. Until the flows recede they're not going to know. They surveyed it two weeks ago, and it's already changed."

Bids have gone out for additional dredging work, but the bids won't be opened for another 30 days and then it will take some time for the dredging operations to mobilize, Smith added.

"We are very blessed here at Little Rock and further south on the river that we are operational, and we can move commodities back and forth," she said. "Our neighbors in Oklahoma are not so fortunate. It's going to take a lot of money."

Business on 07/18/2019

CORRECTION: River flow rate measurements are made in cubic feet per second. An earlier version of this story incorrectly described recent and projected flow rates.

Print Headline: Some river traffic returns at Little Rock port

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