Input sought on assessment of Arkansas River dredging project

Corps wants comments on plan to increase river’s depth

Dredging operations continue on a section of the Arkansas River near downtown Little Rock in this Dec. 22, 2023 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)
Dredging operations continue on a section of the Arkansas River near downtown Little Rock in this Dec. 22, 2023 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)


A 98-page draft assessment and supporting documents for a yearslong project to deepen portions of the Arkansas River was released last month, and the engineers behind the effort say they need the public to weigh in on it.

Members of the public have just under two weeks left to submit comment to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of the Little Rock and Tulsa districts on the draft "supplemental environmental assessment," as well as a draft "finding of no significant impact." The reports and public comment are required by federal law to be part of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System Project.

Comments can be submitted by visiting swl.usace.army.mil/Missions/Planning/MKARNS-12-foot-Channel/Comment-Card. They are due by March 1.

Craig Hilburn said that he hadn't seen any comments from the general public by the middle of last week. However, he wasn't concerned by the lack of input.

"It's normal in all the projects I've worked on," said Hilburn, a regional technical specialist who serves as the lead biologist on the project. "It's usually that last week, the last few days of the commentary, when you start receiving comments."

While various agencies with a vested interest in water quality have contacted the Corps of Engineers, most of the communication with the public has come in the form of questions or attempts at clarification, he said.

Tomas Rofkahr, a spokesman for the Corps' Little Rock District said that, despite the lackluster participation in the first half of this comment period, the public has interacted heavily with the Corps during other meetings that have been held on the project so far. In early June, the Corps held four workshops in Catoosa, Okla., Fort Smith, Little Rock and Pine Bluff, during which people were invited to ask questions and, again, leave comments.

"It's an integral part to everything that we do, because they are public projects, and we try to work very closely with the public," Rofkahr said.

Billions of dollars in goods are moved annually through the system, which passes from Tulsa through Arkansas to the Mississippi River.

The project aims to increase the amount of cargo that can be shipped along the waterway by deepening the navigation system's channel by a quarter of its current minimum depth -- from 9 feet to 12 feet.

It's an effort that has been in the works for at least two decades.

While the waterway provides a minimum 9-foot-deep navigation channel, as much as 90% of the river is already at a 12-foot or greater depth, according to the Corps.

Once the river has a consistent 12-foot channel, it will be able to accommodate as much as 45 million tons annually, or about four times the amount it now handles.

The Corps says that by increasing the amount of cargo that can be transported along the river, it hopes to reduce road and railway congestion, create opportunities for use of materials that are dredged up and allow the inland commercial fleet to sail at deeper drafts that are consistent with those on the lower Mississippi River.

ASSESSMENT

The supplemental assessment evaluates the proposed changes to the river system, analyzing "potential impacts to the human and natural environment" as a result of the effort, the draft states.

It follows up on a lengthy 2005 environmental impact statement, examines the potential effects the project could have and summarizes the history and status of the original Arkansas River Navigation Study project.

The assessment also documents the changes and refinements made to the 12-foot channel design during previous phases and evaluates how updated construction and design plans done since the 2005 statement was completed might affect the surrounding environment.

Hilborn said one of the biggest changes since the 2005 plan is that the amount of dredging engineers expect to be necessary to complete the project has been reduced by about 50%.

In 2005, the planned figure was 10,985,339 cubic yards. That figure has since dropped to 5,791,099 cubic yards.

Based on the assessment, the Corps also determined that "the recommended plan would not cause significant adverse effects on the quality of the human environment," but that it may have "unavoidable adverse impacts" on some natural environments, wildlife and historic properties, according to the report and associated documents. The report also lists steps to be taken to minimize or negate unwanted consequences.

According to the Corps, the final version of the study must be completed before construction can begin.

It expects it to be available this summer, which means construction could start late this year at the earliest.

The updated recommended plan includes:

Construction of 112 new or modified rock "river training structures," which rely on the river's own energy to scour areas of built-up sediment and help ensure the river stays at navigable depth.

Dredging at 96 locations for channel deepening.

Construction of 39 new upland disposal sites, two of which are in Arkansas, and 37 of which are in Oklahoma.

Construction of 41 new and the use of 129 existing in-water disposal sites in Arkansas.

Implementation of any required environmental mitigation and associated monitoring.

The recommended plan would cause "unavoidable adverse impacts" to as much as 74 acres of bottomland hardwood forest, and 4,974 acres of emergent wetland habitat, according to one report. In addition, 165 acres of gravel bar habitat would be affected.

The Corps' plan is to mitigate those issues by restoring about 135 acres of agricultural fields to bottomland hardwood forest and 2,225 acres contained within dike fields to emergent wetland. They would also recreate 165 acres of gravel bar habitat.

A biological assessment connected with the draft assessment report states two federally listed threatened or endangered species are expected to fall into the category "may affect, likely to adversely affect:" the alligator snapping turtle and the American burying beetle. The category means that adverse effects "may occur as a direct or indirect result of the proposed action or its interrelated or interdependent activities, and the effect is not discountable or insignificant," according to the document.

The project may result in the loss of habitat for the American burying beetle and could injure or kill individual members of the species, the assessment states.

However, the project isn't likely to "jeopardize the continued existence" of the alligator snapping turtle because the effects are limited to the immediate project area, according to the Corps.

Of the other 20 federally listed animals within the project area, nine are expected to be placed in the "may affect, but not likely to adversely affect" category. The report states the plan isn't expected to have an effect on the 11 remaining species.

To counter the chance for the project to harm historic properties, the Corps will seek to enter into a programmatic agreement with groups that include the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Tribal Historic Preservation Office, the Cherokee and Choctaw nations' historic preservation offices and the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey.

The Corps has already held a "plethora" of meetings to solicit feedback on the project, according to the assessment.

The assessment also states that "no direct impacts to communities or individuals with environmental justice concerns were identified," and that the project "would not disproportionately affect economically disadvantaged communities."

PROJECT HISTORY

As part of the inland waterway system, the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System originates at the Port of Catoosa in Tulsa and runs through Oklahoma and Arkansas to the Mississippi River.

It is considered a "high-use" system and sees between 10 and 11 million tons of cargo each year, the Corps states.

The navigation system project was named in honor of senators John L. McClellan of Arkansas and Robert S. Kerr of Oklahoma, who helped the legislation get through Congress, and opened to navigation in 1971.

The total cost of the project at the time was $1.3 billion.

Calls by the navigation industry for an examination into deepening the waterway's channel after the release of a Corps study in 2000 were followed three years later by congressional approval for the project.

The effort has progressed in fits and starts, with the attainment of adequate funding for the project being a major obstacle.

In November 2021, the White House announced the Corps had awarded over $200 million "to maintain and improve" the McClellan-Kerr system through the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

In February 2023, the Corps' Little Rock District received an additional $4.1 million in the Fiscal Year 23 Work Plan, a portion of which could go toward deepening the channel.

Of that, $3.3 million in operation and maintenance funds were to improve navigation along the river.

Inland waterways, such as the McClellan-Kerr system, promote a strong U.S. economy by allowing the transport of goods such as agricultural products, coal and petroleum in a "safe, cost-effective and environmentally" manner, according to a 2019 U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

However, the agency said an "aging and less reliable" waterways infrastructure has lowered effective transportation capacity, thereby increasing freight rates for other modes, reducing farmer returns and lowering economic activity.

The report states that "to be competitive in the global marketplace, the U.S. farmer and U.S. agriculture need a reliable transportation infrastructure system, including a well-functioning inland waterways system."

An increased investment in waterways infrastructure is predicted to increase employment by 11% to more than 346,000 jobs and expand the gross domestic product by 10% to $41 billion by 2029, according to the Agriculture Department.

By 2045, those figures increase to 19%, or 472,000 jobs, expanding the gross domestic product by 20% to $64.6 billion.

Hilburn urged the public to examine the vast collection of information available in the assessment and elsewhere on the Corps' website and to provide feedback before the March 1 deadline.

"We certainly want and encourage as much public involvement as we can get," he said. "It only makes our analysis better, to hear from an interested public."


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