TULSA, Okla. — When countries like China buy soybeans and grain, that journey might start in a port in the land-locked state of Oklahoma.
Farmers in states like Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas and Colorado rely on a 445-mile water highway called the McClellan-Kerr Navigation System to ship their crops like soybeans and grain across the world.
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The system is now 50 years old and has a growing backlog of critical infrastructure maintenance and repairs. If something breaks and interrupts the flow of barge traffic, many farmers could be left to find pricier ways to ship their crops and buy essential supplies like fertilizer.
The ‘Oklahoma seacoast’
Mike Bellar, a farmer from Howard, Kansas, takes a 125-mile trip to unload a trailer full of about 57,000 pounds of soybeans at the Port of Catoosa in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This winter, he says he took 77 semitrucks to the port.
Bellar’s soybeans are loaded onto barges, big floating containers that are pushed by boats. The MKARNS connects the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers, so eventually, the crops can be loaded onto ships and delivered worldwide.
Barges use significantly less gas to float down the river and have more capacity than trucks or trains. Bellar says those savings make the six-hour roundtrip worth it.
“The best prices go out on the barges. It really gives us a market — it’s extremely important for us,” Bellar says.
Farmers like Bellar have relied on the system for 50 years. Former President Richard Nixon referred to it as the “Oklahoma sea coast” because the system can connect to the Gulf of Mexico and ship resources worldwide.
During a speech at the grand opening of the Port of Catoosa in 1971, Nixon noted the savings for farmers.
“Lower shipping costs coming in mean that the farmer pays less for his fertilizer, machinery and other supplies and lower shipping costs going out,” Nixon says. “Meaning that the farmer can pocket more of the market price of his crops and livestock.”
David Yarbrough, the director of Tulsa Ports, says the MKARNS serves a 12-state region. Since it’s the most western inland waterway port, farmers in states like Kansas, Colorado and Oklahoma use it to ship their crops. Other states, like Minnesota and South Dakota, rely on fertilizer that floats on the river and is delivered to them, he says.
One barge can carry 1,500 tons of grain, fertilizer or soybeans. That’s equal to 60 semitrucks, Yarbrough says.
“Now think about a single towboat on our system pushing multiple barges, let’s say 12,” he says. “Now you have the equivalent of 720 semitrucks replaced by one towboat with a crew of probably six or eight people operating two or three diesel engines to get that product from here to the Gulf.”
One study in 2001 showed moving freight by barge saved $68 million for Oklahoma farmers and manufacturers compared to other modes of transportation, according to an Oklahoma Department of Transportation factsheet. According to a 2019 report, MKARNS as a whole transported 10.9 million tons of goods, valued at $4.3 billion.
Flooding and repairs
Heather Nachtmann, an industrial engineering professor at the University of Arkansas, says a majority of repairs the Army Corps of Engineers has to do is dredging.
“It’s a living system … it’s a river, so trees fall in it. Plants grow in it, mud changes in it,” Nachtmann says.
But in 2019, record-level rains and flooding caused sandbars that closed the ports for months.
Andrea Murdock-McDaniel, chief of operations for the southwestern division at the Army Corps of Engineers, says the system had millions of tons of sediment that spread out throughout the system down to Little Rock, Arkansas.
“We literally could not get navigation traffic through and actually couldn’t even identify at one point where the channel was because it filled in with sediment,” Murdock-McDaniel said.
The dredging that ensued in 2019 didn’t complete until December 2020, she says.
At the Port of Catoosa, farmers like Bellar couldn’t put grain or soybeans on barges. He says he had to store his grain until he could ship it in the fall. His biggest issue, though, was that he couldn’t get fertilizer from the port. Instead, he had to get the fertilizer from Missouri. Since it came in on rail, it had a higher price tag, he says.
“Fertilizer’s cheaper coming up on a barge than coming in by rail or truck and that’s why it cost me more,” Bellar says.
Yarbrough says it took most of the year for the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge and make other repairs so that operations could get back to normal.
“It was frustrating because we’re at the end of the line. And all the dredging and operations to restore the channel have to start downstream and work their way upstream,” he says.
Congress controls the money needed for repairs. Brig. Gen. Christopher Beck, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s commanding general for the southwestern division, says they were given about $19 million and $106 million in supplemental flood money to make repairs in 2019.
“Our team prioritizes the biggest requirements, and we use those funds to address those most significant requirements,” Beck says.
Beck says there is about $225 million in backlogged repairs to the system. The Corps looks at what is more than 50% likely to fail in the next five years to prioritize the repairs and how much money they need, Murdock-McDaniel says.
The repairs include tainter gates, which control the flow of the water on the system. Each gate costs about $3.5 million to replace, and there are more than 225 of them on the system, she says.
“So if you do the math there, you can see there’s quite a lot. Not all of them are in critical need for repair, but we prioritize those that are,” Murdock-McDaniel says.
The price in repairs grows every year, Thaddaeus Babb, waterways program director for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.
“A lot of times what happens is they have to take what amount they do have for this and put kind of a bandaid fix on it, something to get it to last a little longer,” Babb says. “But again, that doesn’t necessarily always take it off of the critical list.”
Officials like Yarbrough are hoping the $17 billion in President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill for inland waterways will help modernize the McClellan-Kerr. If not, the backlog in repairs could cause interruptions for farmers and other industries that want to deliver their products on the system. He compares the situation to car maintenance.
“That car runs well, and it’s got good tires,” Yarbrough says. “But when you put a lot of miles on it, things are going to need to be replaced. Tires get bald. The oil needs to be changed. You need to take care of that car. If you don’t, it will let you down at some point.”