The Little Rock and Tulsa districts of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are seeking input for a project to deepen a 445-mile section of the Arkansas River, increasing the amount of cargo that can be shipped along the waterway.
The effort, which aims to deepen the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System's channel by just a quarter of its current minimum depth, has been in the works for at least two decades.
Construction on the project is scheduled to begin in 2025, and Eric Larrat, a biologist with the Corps' Regional Environmental Center, said they estimate it will take roughly another decade to complete.
The Corps says the project will lower transportation costs, a benefit to "producers and consumers throughout the region and nation." Currently, about $5 billion in goods are moved annually along this system, which passes from Tulsa, Okla., through Arkansas to the Mississippi River.
Before that construction can start, however, the Corps needs to conduct a "supplemental environmental assessment." And they need comment from the public.
The assessment will examine the potential effects of the project, as well as how to mitigate any negative consequences it identifies. It follows up on a lengthy 2005 environmental impact statement, and is necessary to ensure the project is in compliance with environmental laws.
Edmund Howe, chief of hydrology and hydraulics for the Little Rock district, said it took months just to learn what was in the nearly-20-year-old study. Further complicating the issue, the waterway has changed in the years since the earlier study was first completed.
"You can't just take that book off the shelf and go build it," he said. "We've got to modernize it. What's different? What's changed?"
Kelly Dobroski, another biologist with the center, said the assessment is also required under the National Environmental Policy Act.
"It's really the umbrella law that guides the work that we do as the government," Dobroski said. Other laws that fall under NEPA include the Endangered Species and Clean Waters acts.
The assessment helps those in charge of the project identify best practices before moving forward, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Little Rock website.
"It's basically outlining what we're anticipating those effects to be, outlining how we are going to mitigate for those impacts [and find] alternatives," Larrat said.
From those alternatives, the Corps will select the least damaging options and consider how those strategies might even be of some benefit to the natural world, according to the biologist. The study will also examine the limitations imposed by the environment and funding.
"At the end of the day our goal is to improve what we can," Dobroski said.
The Corps says the study, which must be finished before construction on the project can begin, should be complete late this year or early the next. According to Larrat, it can be amended even after it's complete.
Starting June 5, the Corps also began collecting comments from the public. Comments can be submitted at swl.usace.army.mil/Missions/Planning/MKARNS-12-foot-Channel/Comment-Card/. They are due by July 8.
Last week, the Corps held four public workshops, in Catoosa, Okla., Fort Smith, Little Rock and Pine Bluff, during which people were invited to ask representatives questions and to leave comments about the project.
While at Wednesday's workshop at the Port of Little Rock, the third stop in the tour, Dobroski said few people had attended the events.
"We've had pretty low turnout, but usually that's pretty consistent when it's not an incredibly controversial project," she said. "So that's not a huge surprise."
However, the Corps expects to get considerably more digital comments as people have adjusted to submitting information online, according to Dobroski.
Once construction begins, the project will involve placing rock structures, known as "weirs," and dredging. Disposal sites for dredge material will also be used throughout the project area, and locks will be strengthened to better allow for barges with a draft greater than 9 feet.
As much as 90% of the channel is already at 12 feet, Howe said. The hydrologist described the remaining percentage of the 445-mile length of the system as "quite a bit of material," though.
The Corps will start by prioritizing current "trouble areas," rather than beginning at one end of the waterway and working their way downriver, according to Howe.
"If we have an area that's giving the navigation industry problems at the nine-foot depth, that's something we want to address first," he said.
He said that weirs "constrict the river channel," harnessing the river's energy and concentrating its flows in "problem" areas where material often deposits. This ensures the channel stays open, according to the hydrologist.
He estimated that 200 structures will either need to be modified or built to constrict the river channel. Many will require raising existing structures to "contain more flow for longer duration of time, so we have more scour potential that's coming through on the crossings," he said.
Dredging, meanwhile, involves removing sediment and debris from the channel, according to storyboards shared at the workshops. This dredging allows ships to pass and maintains the river's flow. Disposed material from the dredging effort will be used to "improve habitats," one such board states.
In the past, for instance, the Corps has built island habitats for terns, Dobroski said.
One of the reasons the Corps believes the project will take about a decade to complete is that these structures are sometimes thousands of feet long.
"There's obviously only so many contractors out there that can do that kind of work," Howe said.
Another reason the hydrologist cited for the project's duration is that, while "some measure of predictability" exists, their strategies must adapt to an ever-changing river. For instance, areas that are causing problems for waterway navigation right now might not be so difficult to navigate in five years, he said.
"There's no blueprint that's final for this, per say," he said. "There's going to be a master plan that's going to evolve as the river changes over time, either naturally because of what happens on the river, or because of the modifications that we're making toward our structures to it."
To meet that adaptive requirement, Howe said the Corps will lean toward "under designing" aspects of the project, rather than "over designing." Doing so allows the river to "talk back" to the engineers, who can then decide if their initial efforts were enough or if further work is necessary.
Engineers could finish the project more quickly by dredging the whole system, but Howe described that approach as "riskier" because a sediment supply to the river would fill it back in. Instead, the Corps must ensure the correct flows last for the right durations, all under appropriate conditions.
"We could go out with all the dredgers that we could get our hands on and dig it out to 12 foot or something next year, and we could say it's open, but it's not really."
This project won't involve modifications to the locks, according to Howe, though he said other efforts from the Corps, such as ongoing maintenance projects, will require some locks to temporarily shut down.
"Those shutdowns will be coordinated with industry so they're aware of what our schedule is," he said.
The increased depth of the channel will allow barges to carry more cargo, reducing the number of trucks and trains required to haul goods across the region, according to James H. Woods, a spokesman for the Corps. Congestion along these roads and railways is expected to diminish as a result.
Each additional foot of draft allows barges to carry an additional 200 tons, according to the project's website. Once the channel has a consistent 12-foot channel, it will be able to accommodate as much as 45 million tons.
Howe said transportation down the navigation system is also less costly than other methods.
"Folks that are moving their agriculture, they can move more of it cheaper," he said. "And it puts more money in their pockets." Those savings, he said, may be passed down to the consumer.
Moving more cargo using the navigation system, as opposed to trucks and trains, would also improve air quality, according to a news release from the Corps. Barges produce "far less" emissions on a ton-per-mile basis than trucks and trains, the release states.
Currently, about $5 billion in goods are moved along the waterway every year, or roughly 10 million tons of cargo, according to the Corps. They estimate it to be "the equivalent of 437,287 semi-trucks or 109,322 railcars."
Securing adequate funding has been a significant obstruction to the project since Congress first approved the 12-foot navigation channel in 2003. By 2005, the Corps was poised to proceed with the project, according to earlier Democrat-Gazette reporting.
At the time, environmental groups worried that material dredged to deepen the shipping lane will fill in the river's meandering curves and backwaters and spoil Arkansas' treasured bass-casting spots, and budget observers believed that the financially strapped Corps could better spend its money shoring up levees to protect people from flooding, rather than on a commercial navigation project.
In 2012, a coalition of Fort Smith and Northwest Arkansas area business, civic and elected leaders banded together to make another push for the project. A University of Arkansas at Little Rock economist then estimated the effort would cost over $68 million.
Howe said the Corps had been able to make some modifications to the system over the years, though he described the progress as "limping along, mostly due to intermittent appropriations from Congress."
In November of last year, the White House announced the Corps had awarded over $200 million "to maintain and improve" the McClellan-Kerr system through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. That funding sparked the current push to accomplish the deepening, according to Howe.
In February, the Corps' Little Rock District received an additional $4.1 million in the Fiscal Year 23 Work Plan, a portion of which could go toward deepening the channel. Of that, $3.3 million in operation and maintenance funds were to improve navigation along the river.
"Everything is funding-dependent," Woods said. "If we get money in we can do this. If we get money in, we can do that. So it's all dependent on the budget."