High water on Arkansas River closes ports; impact called ‘devastating’

The Big Dam Bridge is closed, Tuesday, May 28, due to rising water levels on the Arkansas River.

The fast flow and high water on the Arkansas River has had "devastating" consequences for river commerce, the director of the Arkansas Waterways Commission said Tuesday.

"I think [the] term 'catastrophic' is right on point," said Deidre Smith. "It's going to be devastating. I'm sure it's going to be hard getting navigation back."

Ports at Fort Smith and at Van Buren in Arkansas were under water Tuesday as was the port in Muskogee, Okla. The port in Tulsa isn't operating.

"I don't have a crystal ball, so I don't know how long it will take for the water to recede to where the locks can start operating again. I know we have a number of barges up and down the system waiting to be moved. This is my first time to experience a flooding event like this in Arkansas. Even the Corps is talking about it being catastrophic."

The Port of Little Rock has been spared, so far.

It has 85 barges in its slackwater harbor where its stevedores are working, said Bryan Day, executive director of the Little Rock Port Authority. As of two weeks ago, another 91 barges were waiting on the Mississippi River to move upriver to the Little Rock port, he said.

The port has been handling about 60 barges a month this year.

"The river is rising, the harbor is rising," Day said. "There will come a point we won't be able to work anymore because of the height of the river, and we'll settle down and hope it starts dropping early next week."

[RELATED: Water tops 2 Arkansas levees as angst rises downriver]

Day agreed with Smith that overall economic damage caused by the flooding has been tremendous.

"The economic impact of this flood -- and if you throw in residential property, farm property, the whole thing -- you're probably talking hundreds of millions of dollars of lost revenue, negative economic impact on the people who make a living off this river or live along this river," Day said. "I just don't know what that looks like when it's all said and done."

The McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System was built almost 50 years ago to provide a navigable waterway, mostly for commerce. It is unclear how long it will take for commercial activity to return to normal up and down the 455-mile navigation system that stretches from Catoosa, Okla., to the Mississippi River.

Completed at a cost of $1.3 billion in 1970, the navigation system has 18 locks and dams to control the river level and allow commerce year-round.

Barges heading upriver carry cargo that includes bauxite, grain, chemicals, fertilizer, steel, pipe, asphalt, soda ash, petroleum products, clay, sand, gravel and miscellaneous commodities, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the system.

Barge traffic heading downstream carries soybeans, wheat, lumber, steel, coal, gypsum, scrap iron, rock, refined petroleum products and manufactured equipment.

Through the first four months of 2019, the system carried nearly 4 million tons of cargo, according to Corps data. Last year, it carried nearly 11 million tons; in 2017, the system carried 11.9 million tons.

Depending on commodity prices, the value of the cargo carried on the system can reach $4 billion annually.

The rising Arkansas River has yet to cause a catastrophic breach in the Three Rivers section where a failure could shut down the navigation system for up to a year.

The Three Rivers segment consists of a series of man-made structures protecting the integrity of the navigation system near the confluence of the Mississippi, Arkansas and White rivers. Specifically, the structures keep the White separated from the lower Arkansas. Flooding, however, periodically damages those structures.

"They told me at this point that the Arkansas and the White rivers are both rising equally, so there's not going to be the damage that we are really concerned about that we could lose the system," Smith said.

The Corps spends millions of dollars annually in maintenance and operations to keep the Three Rivers area safe for navigation. The agency approved a permanent fix last year. Its estimated cost is $180.3 million.

The river at the Port of Little Rock is expected to crest Monday.

"Right now, we're still optimistic the river won't come over the bank here at the port," Day said. "We're optimistic that industry will be fine. But I have to say that it's a moving target. It's raining in Oklahoma. It's supposed to rain here, though we don't think it will rain enough to impact it.

"There's just a lot of unknowns, and we're just having to watch it and take it one day at a time."

The flooding also has disrupted rail traffic in some parts of the state.

Union Pacific -- which operates in 23 states, including Arkansas -- told customers Tuesday that its 165-mile line from Coffeyville, Kan., to Van Buren and its 82-mile line from Fort Smith to Russellville are closed because of flooding.

"This does not necessarily mean every inch of track is flooded," Union Pacific spokesman Raquel Espinoza said in an email. "Rather, the route is out of service due to impacts on track section[s]."

Some Arkansas farmers, already slow to plant this spring because of soaked fields, are worried about potential flooding.

Rainfall of 3 or 4 inches in Missouri could mean an early end to Jerry Morgan's 2019 crops in northeast Arkansas, Morgan said Tuesday.

"I don't know how much more of this farmers can stand," Morgan said. "The Arkansas River is blowing levees. A wet spring put everybody behind on planting. Prices are down. Crop insurance just won't pay the bills. All you can do is pray for everybody."

Morgan's 4,400 acres of farmland along the Black River in Randolph County were flooded twice in 2016 -- at springtime planting and at harvest time -- and again in 2017. His 2018 crops, especially soybeans, took a hit in the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China.

"One good rain up north in Missouri will probably finish us for the year. One good rain, of 3 or 4 inches, would come our way through the Strawberry, the Current, the Eleven Point, right into the Black River," Morgan said, referring to the system of rivers that separate the Arkansas Delta and its hill country.

While farmers and ranchers along the Arkansas River from Little Rock west to Fort Smith continue moving equipment and cattle to higher ground, row-crop farmers along the eastern third of the state are crossing their fingers.

"Anyone along the Arkansas River will be impacted, all the way to Pendleton [in Desha County] where it meets up with the Mississippi River," said Heather Cross, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in North Little Rock. "That's where we're having issues, with the Mississippi River backing up and the water having nowhere to go."

The White River, a frequent flood stage menace to farmers, is mostly above flood stage for now, with exceptions at Clarendon and Augusta. Most of the rain expected this week will be across western Arkansas, lessening the threat along the White and Mississippi rivers but further complicating the situation along the Arkansas River.

Heavy rainfall this spring delayed planting across the state, especially that of corn, rice, peanuts and soybeans.

That, however, could be a silver lining for those who grow crops on the eastern side of levees along the Mississippi River, because what hasn't been planted also can't be washed away.

"We've planted nothing behind the levees," said Michael McCarty of Mississippi County, referring to farmland between levees and the river. "Every time the river dropped, it would pick back up in a few days," he said.

Post-planting floods wash the farmers' seeds -- and all their work -- downstream.

The Mississippi River was at or near flood stage at Osceola and Memphis on Tuesday. Crests are expected June 8 at 29 feet at Osceola, where the flood stage is 28 feet, and 29.2 feet at Memphis, where flood stage is 34.

McCarty plants about 300 acres between the river and levee, while some neighboring farmers plant 2,000 or 3,000 acres, he said. "The river's been up since November," he said. "A lot of times we'll plant in March or April, and then we'll get a little rise, but it's been a steady rise [this year] and we never got a chance to get back there and plant."

Business on 05/29/2019