BARGES (copy)

Salvage operations of two sunken barges begin at Webbers Falls Lock and Dam 16 Aug. 27. The barges broke loose up river and sunk during May’s historic flooding.

MIKE SIMONS/Tulsa World file

Crippled for months this summer by historic flooding in Oklahoma, the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System is facing a $225 million backlog in “critical” maintenance projects, U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe said.

A senior member of the Environmental and Public Works Committee, Inhofe submitted a statement for the record Wednesday for an EPW hearing to consider the next Water Resources and Development Act legislation.

Operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, MKARNS is 445 miles long and runs from the Tulsa Port of Catoosa to the Mississippi River. The controlled waterway has 18 locks and dams, 13 in Arkansas and five in Oklahoma.

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MKARNS supports economic activity across a 12-state region, moving 10.9 million tons of commerce worth $3.5 billion annually, Inhofe said. No barge has moved from the Tulsa Port of Catoosa in Tulsa since May 13, he said.

Speaking to the waterway’s needed upgrades, Inhofe said a maintenance project is deemed critical if, by not completing it, a 50% chance of failure exists. Projects in need of critical maintenance include the tainter gates that need replacing at multiple locks throughout the system and repairing decades-old concrete structures with exposed rebar integral to dam operation.

“Should any one of these critical maintenance projects fail before it can be addressed, use of the whole system would be impossible,” the senator said.

Two barges that struck the Webbers Falls Lock and Dam in May have been removed from the waterway, and minor repairs to the dam have been completed, Muskogee County Commissioner Ken Doke said.

But because of this year’s flooding, tons of silt were deposited in the channel, necessitating a re-dredging that likely won’t be complete until November, Inhofe said.

Reduced for the sunken barges extraction, water levels are on their way up and could be back to normal within a week, Doke said. After that, dredging crews will begin the bulk of their work, he said. Stalled water traffic already has raised unemployment in the Port of Muskogee area by 2%, Doke said.

“Originally, the thought was we may not see barge traffic until November,” he said. “But there’s been delays with some of the dredging companies being broken down and repairs to the dam. That took a little extra time. Everything from the very beginning has been very dynamic, subject to change at any moment.”

Earlier this year, the EPW codified President Trump’s “One Federal Decision” process for major surface transportation infrastructure projects in the America’s Transportation and Infrastructure Act of 2019. Inhofe wants to extend those permitting reforms to inland waterway infrastructure projects.

One Federal Decision sets a government-wide goal of reducing, to two years, the average time for each agency to complete the required environmental reviews and authorization decisions for major infrastructure projects, as measured from the date of publication of a notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement.

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Rhett Morgan


Twitter: @RhettMorganTW