Arkansas has seen many dry periods in its history, but this year’s drought is causing so many problems for The Natural State and other states along the Mississippi River that in some areas, it seems almost biblical in proportion.
Affecting everything from farming and duck hunting to football games and barge shipping on the state’s waterways, the shortfall in rain has even led the U.S. Drought Monitor to declare western Arkansas as extreme drought territory.
Fred Long serves as vice president of Logistic Services, a key player in the loading and offloading of barges and ships in the region. He’s worked at the Port of Little Rock for 28 years, handling all the docks, ports, terminals and warehouses of the complex.
Long said while the Arkansas River has been impacted by the drought, the Mississippi River poses a much larger problem for both the area and the nation. That river’s water levels are now so low that barges carrying goods are getting grounded along the way.
“Most of the cargo we handle transits the upper or lower Mississippi River, and those are areas so low now that it’s affecting how much they can draft on barges and tows,” he said.
“They normally can draft to 12 feet in the Mississippi, but now the loaded barges are drafting too deep to move, so they just have to sit. It depends on where the barge gets stuck to see if they can even lighten it.
“We’re seeing a slow rise in the water level, so now you’re seeing barges move again. But the cascading effect is that you had a number of barges that had not moved. So, you’ve got a backload of barges having to clear through the transportation system.”
Another problem Long noted were the Arkansas, Ohio and Tennessee Rivers converging with the Mississippi further north, and different water levels in each cause additional navigational problems for barges coming up from the Gulf of Mexico. The Arkansas River has fewer problems than other waterways, being fed by rainfall in Kansas and Colorado.
Arkansas has another advantage in the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas Navigation System, which created a highly successful series of locks and dams to better regulate water levels. Long said the Mississippi doesn’t have effective locks and dams, so much of the water that does flow into it from waterways such as the Ohio River doesn’t hold well. As such, the impact on Arkansas has been muted compared to other regions
Long said recovery is already occurring, as by Thanksgiving week water levels had risen four feet in the Mississippi with the Tennessee and Ohio rivers also getting to safe levels, which is critical for the nation’s infrastructure and supply chain.
“This country was founded by people coming in from ships, and when the U.S. was populated, it was people coming down and the commerce coming in by water,” Long said. “The country grew off the rivers first, then off the rails and then off the interstates. The way the country’s grown over the years has changed, but it’s always been the safest and most economical, cost-efficient way to move goods on the waterways.”
The Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for maintaining a 9-foot channel on the Arkansas River, according to Jay Woods, public affairs specialist for the Little Rock District. He notes the Arkansas River is maintaining a healthy flow of 12,000 cubic feet per second, without having to do additional dredging.
“It’s kind of weird because the National Weather Service says we’re in a drought, but by Corps standards we’re not,” Woods said. “The water is staying in the conservation pool, which is where it’s supposed to be instead of the flood pool where it’s been for the past five or six years.”
Environmental issues aside, shipping costs are much higher than normal, said Cassandra Caldwell, director of the Arkansas Waterways Commission. The commission is responsible for developing and protecting Arkansas’ five navigable waterways, and Caldwell noted studies on the drought’s economic impact will likely take years.
“We’re seeing the Mississippi River affecting some of the grains and commodities that are grown in states like Kansas and Oklahoma and shipped out,” said Caldwell. “It also affected the amount that was harvested this year. There’s quite a lot of soybeans here in Arkansas, and they’re having a hard time getting the product to market.
“Barges are in short supply and high demand right now, and with the restrictions imposed on drafts on that river, we can’t fill the barges as full. We normally can fill to a 12-foot draft with the equivalent of 70 tractor trailer trucks for a barge and a typical tow is going to move about 15 barges on the river. That’s a lot of trucks off the road, and capacity is down by 30 to 50 percent as barges can only be filled 50 to 60 percent.”
Aside from business factors, the drought season has had a major effect on the fun side of life too, as the world-famous duck hunting season in Stuttgart has been seriously impacted.
Dennis Adkins has been in rice farming for 50 years and is such an avid duck hunter that he’s out at least 55 days of the 60-day season. He says that the Bayou Meto water source that runs from Jacksonville through Stuttgart has dropped dramatically, as has the Big Ditch that large duck hunting clubs rely upon.
“An 1,100-acre reservoir is now very sparse, with little pockets of water in there,” Adkins said. “It’s known as the Duck Hunting Capital of the World, and everyone is suffering from lack of water. There are even places that you can walk across that are normally filled with flowing water.”
Adkins noted a little further east, the White River and others are well below flood stage.
“The Mississippi River is at the lowest level ever recorded,” he said. “They’re finding boats and Civil War stuff there. All this will have an adverse effect on duck hunters and their ability to hunt.”
The duck hunting season spurs massive business for Stuttgart, as hunters spend over $1 million per day at sporting goods stores, hotels and restaurants. Hunters come from all over the nation, and have included U.S. presidents and celebrities.
There are other factors impacting this year’s season, as federal reports indicate the mallard population has dropped by up to 8 million birds.
“In my opinion it’s overhunting,” Adkins said. “There’s also been such a surge that Missouri was an area that didn’t hunt that much years ago, and now they short stop us.
“Ducks Unlimited has bought thousands of acres up there for ducks to rest. A duck’s not going to move unless their food is covered over, and then they head south. If they can’t rest here, they’ll move on, and we won’t have ducks.”
Caldwell notes there’s hope on the horizon, as the region enters a wet season on the Mississippi River.
“We’ll be back to full capacity or close to it,” she said. “That’s coming soon, it’s just the process is a little painstaking right now.”
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