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USACE Launches Project to Deepen Arkansas River

Posted on July 21, 2023

A massive infrastructure project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is underway to deepen the Arkansas River.

The project, conceived of 20 years ago by commercial navigators and lawmakers to allow more commercial traffic on the river, is finally beginning its design phase.

The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that over a million cubic yards will need to be dredged from the river bottom to deepen certain areas along the 445-mile stretch from Tulsa to the Mississippi, also known as Marine Highway 40—an economically vital shipping route.

“We like to tell people that we’ve got 445 miles of global coastline right here in the middle of the United States where we can ship goods and commodities around the world,” said Randall Townsend, Chief of Public Affairs for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Little Rock.

The project’s initiation is thanks to $96.6 million in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funds the Army Corps of Engineers received in March this year to take its first steps towards realizing the 12-foot Channel Project, as it’s called.

The project was originally authorized by Congress in 2005 but was given no funding at the time.

“And so, it’s kind of been one of those projects that sits on a shelf that we look at every time we receive some funding,” said Townsend.

The goal is to deepen parts of the Arkansas River from nine to 12 feet, those few feet making all the difference for commercial vessels like barges, which would be able to carry about 43 percent more cargo.

“Where you really see a major benefit of going from nine to 12 feet, is the MKARNS, the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, already serves 12 states as far north as Montana and North Dakota ship goods down to Tulsa on the river system and then it goes to the gulf and the world,” Townsend said, “and so, increasing that amount allows us to ship more goods out at a quicker pace.”

“Arkansas, as you know, is the number one rice exporter in the nation. And so, getting those rice onto those grain bins and out to the world is a big deal. At a 12-foot draft, they’ll be able to do that at a quicker pace,” he said.

The Army Corps of Engineers predicts that upon the project’s completion, the river’s commercial productivity will be increased anywhere from 30 to 40 percent.

“Because what happens when we go from a nine-foot to a 12-foot channel is one 15-barge tow is carrying 870 18-wheelers worth of cargo up and down the river system, taking that off of Interstate 40. You go from 870 18-wheelers in a nine-foot channel to 1050 18-wheelers at a 12-foot channel. That’s for a fully loaded 15-barge tow,” Townsend said.

“And so, what they’re trying to do is increase shipping capacity on the river, making it more of a competitive river system for those commercial navigators.”


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