Oklahoma's upstream commercial ports may not receive incoming barge traffic until July.
Heavy flow rates on the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System have idled most Oklahoma commercial shipping since Memorial Day rains. The rates have remained strong as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers drained reservoir storage.
With flow rates slowing June 8 to 10,000 cubic feet per second, Tulsa Port of Catoosa Director Robert W. Portiss said towboats would begin taking barges downstream, The Journal Record reported.
But the Corps reports project that flows on the navigation system's Verdigris River portion will rise to 30,000 cubic feet by this week. While the wider Arkansas portion of the system can safely handle traffic at such rates, Portiss said those flows will further block upstream traffic on the narrower Verdigris.
Bruce Oakley Inc.'s Port 33 Vice President Steve Taylor estimated it may take 14 days for flow rates from continued drainage to reach levels allowing 24-hour barge traffic.
While towboats could make it up to Muskogee by June 22, Taylor said the continued strong water flow and the narrowing upstream channel may keep inbound barges from reaching his port and the Tulsa Port of Catoosa for another week or more.
"That means you're at June 30 to July 1," he said. "Let's say July 1. It is just an easy day to remember. And that is if no more rain events entered into the equation between now and July 1."
Portiss said that data made sense.
"He's been doing this for 35 years," Portiss said.
The long-term outlook remains strong. Portiss said initial reports of damaged downstream locks proved to be little more than accumulated logs. But Verdigris traffic is still limited by water release schedules and potential silt buildups.
"We could end up with some areas where shoaling has occurred," he said.
It all leaves the three Oklahoma ports with little to no barge traffic for June.
"While that's a really sad commentary, the good thing is our port here has rail and truck," Portiss said. "It's not like they have no means of moving their end products to their customers or being able to maintain the raw product they need."
May traffic counts at the Port of Catoosa have not been released. Barges traveling Oklahoma's portion of the McClellan-Kerr system handled 1.9 million total tons through the first four months of 2015, down from 2.17 million tons for the same period of 2014. The Port of Catoosa traffic fell 29.9 percent over that period, from 947,873 tons on 555 barges a year ago to 663,790 tons on 412 barges.
As a private operator, Taylor could not release Port 33's data. His firm, which operates Port 33 and the Port of Muskogee, kept its staff working on operational and infrastructure needs through this downtime.
"The month of May and June will be very disappointing on what once was a very reasonable year," he said. "We will take a big loss. There's no doubt about it."
Hard red winter wheat producers may suffer the worst from the slowdown, Taylor said. Farmers reaping that harvest will find few barges available for transit. Taylor said one Port 33 tenant, Consolidated Grain and Barge, is considering bringing in trucks for the coming supply, which may have to lay on the ground until transport's available.
"The farmer's going to take probably the biggest overall direct hit, because there's no place to take his winter wheat," Taylor said. "Everybody assumes that you just play real busy barge catch-up, but that doesn't happen. That tonnage is lost."