Dredging efforts over the past few weeks are expected to begin easing access for larger vessels and tows pushing heavier barge loads to make it through Montgomery Point Lock and Dam, the first point of access between the Arkansas River and the Mississippi River.
The Mississippi River hit its lowest water level on record this fall. With declining water levels on the White River below the lock as well, vessels had difficulty crossing between the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers during harvest season this year. Grain from the states the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers flow through is typically transported downstream this time of year, while fertilizer and other supplies are sent upstream.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lifted a recommended 7-foot draft restriction for the White River below the lock on Wednesday, following dredging efforts over the past few weeks to ease access through the channel. The draft restriction was first recommended on Oct. 13 because of the historically low water levels on the Mississippi.
"It is back to a 9-foot draft and we are congressionally authorized to keep the channel at 9 feet for commercial navigation, so it is back to 9 feet where they made the first cut," Jay Townsend, Public Affairs chief at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Little Rock District, said on Friday.
"The contract dredge, the Sand Piper, is still on site cutting the other half of the channel, but while they're cutting the other half of the channel, mariners can go through that first cut."
Since Oct. 13, there have been approximately 100 barges -- multiple barges can be towed by one vessel -- waiting at various points to pass through from either side of Montgomery Point, Townsend said.
Tow boats can typically push 15 barges on the Arkansas River and can typically push 50 barges on the Lower Mississippi River, said Bryan Day, executive director at the Port of Little Rock.
"At one point, they were pushing one barge through at a time [onto the Arkansas River] and that just doesn't work financially. Every day that those crews are handling barge is at the expense of the owner or the shipper."
The 445-mile long McClellan–Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System starts where the White and Mississippi Rivers meet, flows half a mile upstream to Montgomery Point and proceeds another 18 miles before the White River eventually connects with the Arkansas River, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' website.
Townsend said he expected to see barge congestion below Montgomery Point after the draft restriction was first recommended, but was surprised to see no traffic.
"The word got out and they all started staying stationary where they were," Townsend said.
"I was looking for a line of traffic like you would see on a regular roadway system, but that wasn't the case. They were able to moor at different locations along the river. They were able to either go back and refuel or let their crews on and off. So they were able to make some preparations and as soon as it opened up and the lock queue was set, they started pushing boats through."
"I went down there and all I could see was an empty lock chamber and the Sand Piper dredge was out there cutting in the river and I couldn't see any barges," Townsend said.
Townsend said the industry coordinated and came up with a locking queue that prioritized which vessels should pass through first.
"...Either what's going to get the biggest payload, or if there's some agriculture [products] that have got to go through, they worked that out among themselves, so they're the ones telling us which boats are either going to come up or down," Townsend said.
Townsend said the Army Corps has been having daily meetings with members of the shipping industry to share information about what the channel will look like and how boats should pass through to avoid dredging vessels.