OKLAHOMA CITY – State Reps. Chris Sneed (R-Fort Gibson), Terry O’Donnell (R-Catoosa) and Avery Frix (R-Muskogee) held an interim study to review critical maintenance issues of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (MKARNS), the impact of the system on surrounding communities, and current and future economic growth plans.
The study took place at the Capitol before the House Transportation Committee.
“The importance of this navigation system to the economies of Eastern Oklahoma, the state and the nation cannot be overstated,” Sneed said. “It is imperative we examine issues surrounding how we maintain this system to prevent future flooding and to ensure the continued reliable delivery of products from this important shipping channel.”
O’Donnell echoed those sentiments.
“The reliability of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas Navigation System Channel is vital to the transportation needs of businesses and manufacturing of the region,” O’Donnell said. “Last spring’s flooding demonstrated the need for our state to be in a position to respond quickly to emergencies affecting the waterway. I am hoping this study sheds some light on what we can do as a state to ensure the safety and efficacy of the McClellan-Kerr Navigation Channel going forward.”
Frix said he joined the study because of the channel’s importance to the Port of Muskogee and the surrounding region.
“This shipping channel directly affects jobs, the economy and the recreation activities afforded residents in my House district,” Frix said. “I wanted to make sure our interests are considered and that we have a say in measures that are adopted to keep this port functioning at top capacity and protected as we consider future growth.”
Other presenters at the interim study were David Yarbrough, director of the Tulsa Port of Catoosa and chairman of the National Waterways Conference; Scott Robinson, director of the Port of Muskogee; Fred Taylor, director of Oakley’s Port 33; and Bob Portiss, port director emeritus of the Tulsa Port of Catoosa and former chairman of the National Waterways Conference.
Yarbrough discussed the value to the nation of the MKARNS, which is part of the largest inland and coastal marine transportation system in the world. The system, maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, moves an estimated 1.4 billion tons of agriculture, minerals and other products, valued at $2 trillion, from the American heartland to national and overseas markets. This is 98% of all U.S. imports and exports and provides 20% of all U.S. jobs (63,000 full time positions in Oklahoma and Arkansas) and 1/3 of the nation’s gross domestic product. Projects on the MKARNS itself serve over 7 million utility customers and provide a return of nearly $37 million every year to the U.S. Treasury.
In addition to the movement of products, the system provides 6.5 billion gallons of drinking water nationwide each day, helps to prevent flooding, provides recreation opportunities and habitats for fish, fowl and other wildlife.
The MKARNS and its system of waterways and reservoirs also enhance the region’s outdoor recreation, presenters said. As an example, BassMasters is planning to return to the Three Forks Harbor in Muskogee in 2020, an event that is expected to positively impact the local economy.
Yarbrough also made the argument that waterway navigation is much more energy efficient, with a smaller carbon footprint, than movement by train or trucks. He said a barge can move one ton of cargo 616 miles per gallon of fuel versus a rail car that could move the same ton only 478 miles and a truck only 150 miles. He said to move an identical amount of cargo by rail generates 30% more carbon dioxide than by barge, and that is 1,000% more emissions by trucks than by barge.
Yarbrough explained that cumulative flood damages prevented by Arkansas River Basin projects in fiscal year 2018 exceeded $20.1 billion. He said this year, because of flooding, the amount of products moved on the waterway systems will be down but will rebound.
Robinson further detailed the effects of last spring’s floods on the Port of Muskogee and its 11 flood storage reservoirs. He said seven states’ waterways drain into Oklahoma and end up in Muskogee. He showed startling images of the devastation caused by this year’s flooding and explained how the Corps attempts to manage flooding to keep surrounding residents safe by releasing water from different dams in the system.
Taylor also discussed the flooding impact on Oakley’s Port 33. Both Robinson and Taylor detailed damage to local buildings and machinery, the cost of lost shipping or increased shipping costs as well as job loss and revenue loss, which is estimated to be at least about $200 million. Both said Oklahoma is still struggling to recover from the flooding.
Portiss discussed the history of MKARNS, which initially was planned as a flood-control project but led to the navigable waterway, conservation and recreation areas that exist today. He also detailed future hopes for the system, including a possible future public-private partnership between Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kansas. He expressed a desire for legislative support of and funding for the on-time completion of the White River Entrance Channel cut-off planning engineering design phase in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ work plan as well as a desire to increase congressional appropriations to address the approximate $250 million in backlog of crucial maintenance issues in the three-rivers’ feasibility study area.