In the News

Three Rivers, Arkansas Deepening Projects Begin (editorial)

September 4, 2023   The Waterways Journal

This year saw the beginning of two important projects that, although distinct, are closely related.


In June, the Tulsa and Little Rock Engineer Districts held public hearings to get feedback for the long-discussed and finally funded establishing of the 12-foot navigation channel along the 445-mile length of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (MKARNS). The project was enabled with a boost from funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, also known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, received in March. The project’s first phase will be a new environmental study. The last comprehensive study of the Arkansas River happened in 2005.


Proponents of the channel deepening say it will unlock the economic potential of the system by allowing bargeloads to increase. Marty Shell, owner of Five Rivers Distribution and operator of the Port of Fort Smith, says barge cargoes could increase by 43 percent. According to the Corps, cargoes on the system as a whole could increase by 30 percent to 40 percent once the project is complete.


Last week saw the formal groundbreaking for the Three Rivers project, whose study area embraces the confluence of the White and Arkansas rivers with the Mississippi River. The mouths of the two rivers have a natural “urge to merge” during high-water events and are at different elevations. During the groundbreaking, Col. Damon Knarr, commander of the Little Rock Engineer District, said, “A convergence between the White and Arkansas rivers would come as a catastrophe.” Control structures to prevent that from happening need strengthening.


While the deepening increases the system’s economic potential, the Three Rivers project will ensure that the MKARNS’ connection to the Mississippi River remains secure and sustainable in the future.


Both projects are part of a forward-looking initiative called MKARNS 2030, a partnership between the Corps, the navigation industry and construction industry to position the entire MKARNS system by 2030 to operate sustainably for the next 50 years. According to the Corps’ MKARNS 2030 website, “Collaborating on future work, now, will reduce risk to USACE, industry and private development, as well as to the navigation industry and economy.” It represents the kind of system-wide thinking and future orientation that is a model for stakeholder collaboration in other river basins.