Navigation resumed this week along the uppermost reaches of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System after being closed to barge traffic for more than four months.
High flows slowed navigation in early May before near-record flooding later that month brought barge traffic to a halt. Two barges that broke loose while moored at the Port of Muskogee collided with Webbers Falls Dam, which prompted a decision by the U.S. Corps of Engineers to drain the Webbers Falls pool to accommodate extraction and salvage efforts.
The Corps began refilling the pool in mid-September after repairing damage to four tainter gates and the dam as a result of the collision. Towboats were allowed to begin moving restricted loads on Monday.
"They are restricted tows: In some places the channel is blocked, but they have found alternate channels," Port Director Scott Robinson said, noting tow boat operators are limited to loads that are two barges wide and three deep. "Dredging is going to continue for maybe the rest of the year. I don’t know how long it is going to take, but at least we are making progress, and that's a good thing."
Robinson said no goods moved by barge during the past four months, beginning in June. Tonnage reports released during a recent meeting of the Muskogee City-County Port Authority show Arkansas River flooding contributed to a 117 percent, or 240,329-ton, drop in the amount of cargo being transported to and from the inland port by barge when compared to the first eight months of 2018.
The amount of cargo shipped to and from the Port of Muskogee by rail ticked higher for a third consecutive month, but it remained below levels recorded for the same period a year ago. August rail tonnage totaled 27,134 tons, a 15.21 percent — or 4,128-ton — decrease from the 31,262 tons shipped by rail in September 2018. Year-to-date rail cargo totaled 176,553 tons, down 5.35 percent from the 185,998 tons reported during the first eight months of 2018.
Imported commodities that arrived in August by rail consisted primarily of steel coils, with pipe and soy hull pellets making up the bulk of the remaining nine commodities that arrived on 296 cars. Rail exports, which left the port on three cars, consisted entirely of petroleum coke.
Robinson said there were about 430 or more barges stalled as a result of the navigation system, which affected access to Oklahoma ports. He estimated the economic impact of that delayed access to be as much as $18 million and maybe even more.
"Somebody is paying for those barges just sitting idle," Robinson said. "It's a pretty serious impact to shippers or barge owners — whoever ends up suffering that expense — it adds up fast, and it is still counting."
August truck cargo tracked at the Port of Muskogee totaled 35,980 tons, bringing the year-to-date total to 542,688 tons. Imported commodities that arrived by truck consisted primarily of steel, asphalt and pipe, which arrived along with 10 other commodities on 338 trucks.
Exported goods consisting primarily of asphalt, steel, pipe, feldspar and rebar left the port on 1,204 trucks that carried 19 different commodities in August.