Shipping on the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System will remain thwarted indefinitely as efforts to recover two sunken barges at Webbers Falls continue.
The Tulsa District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made a deviation request Wednesday with Southwestern Division Headquarters to raise the pool at Webber Falls 491.5 feet for 24 hours to facilitate moving barges off this pool. The request was made because of additional shoaling that has developed, hindering barge movement.
The Webber Falls pool reached 491 feet at about 6 a.m. Tuesday.
Flooding caused two barges to break free from constraints and crash into Webbers Falls Lock and Dam 16 on May 23, obstructing three of its gates from being able to close completely.
“We had hoped and the salvager initially had believed that they would be able to go in there and get those barges away from the tainter gates, gates that control the pool,” said David Yarbrough, port director at the Tulsa Port of Catoosa. “Two of them are wide open. What’s hindering the contractor’s progress is they are trying to remove those barges right there where it is basically open river.
“Water is pouring over the top of those barges through the dam, and they just can’t get the barges to budge.”
Once commercial barge traffic has vacated the Webbers Falls pool, the Tulsa District will be lowering pool elevations at Webbers Falls to relieve pressure on the sunken barges to better facilitate recovery. Elevation for recovery efforts will be lowered to 480 feet and, if needed, will be incrementally lowered until a safe elevation range for barge retrieval is identified. Needed elevation is unknown at this time and will be determined by the salvage company performing the operations, Bruce Oakley Inc.
How long the recovery will take is unknown. Currently, uncontrolled flow through the gates at Webbers Falls where the sunken barges prevent gate closure is estimated at 55,000 cubic feet per second.
Webbers Falls pool will equalize with the lower pool in R.S. Kerr at elevation 460 feet. This navigation pool will continue operating at the deviation elevation of 461.5 feet or below.
“This puts us out of business basically above Webbers Falls,” Yarbrough said of commercial shipping. “Van Buren (Ark.) would be about as far as traffic could move on the system.
“It’s safe to say it will be still many weeks before we see resumption of navigation. And it will be many months before we see navigation at pre-flood conditions. Once the salvage operation is done, we can control pool. We can get the dredgers in and start addressing the areas where we know we have shoaling issues.”
Annually, about 6 million tons of product are shipped in and out of the state by water, Yarbrough said. A multimodal shipping complex and 2,000-acre industrial park, Tulsa Port of Catoosa has a $300 million annual economic impact on Oklahoma.
In an interview several years ago, U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin said the port and MKARNS touch 8,000 jobs and represent $5 billion in private industry investments from Catoosa through Muskogee. He added then that any shutdown of the waterway would cost the state an estimated $2 million per day.
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