Waterway to the World. The McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (map) is a 440-mile waterway linking Oklahoma and the surrounding five-state area with ports on the nations 25,000-mile inland waterway system, and foreign and domestic ports beyond by way of New Orleans and the Gulf Intracoastal waterway. Because of its south central location, the waterway is operational year-round, regardless of weather conditions.
The Tulsa Port of Catoosa, near Tulsa, Oklahoma, (proximity map) is located at the head of navigation for the System. The waterway travels 445 miles along the Verdigris River, the Arkansas River, the Arkansas Post Canal and the White River before joining the Mississippi at Montgomery Point. New Orleans is 600 miles south.
There are 18 locks and dams on the McClellan-Kerr. Each of these dams creates a reservoir, or what is called a navigation pool. The system of locks and dams can be likened to a 440-mile staircase of water.
In an average year, 13-million tons of cargo is transported on the McClellan-Kerr by barge. This ranges from sand and rock to fertilizer, wheat, raw steel, refined petroleum products and sophisticated petrochemical processing equipment.
Why is so much cargo moved by water? One reason is cost. It is estimated that large quantities of commodity cargo can be moved by barge for one-third the cost of railroad and one-fifth the cost of truck.
Secondly, cargo that is too big or too heavy to be transported over the highways or by railroad is easily moved by water. Equipment weighing more than 600 tons has passed over the Port’s docks.
Another reason is economy of scale. A full tow on the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System consists of eight barges, lashed tightly together and pushed from behind by a single towboat. With each barge holding 1,400 to 1,500 tons of material, a full complement of eight barges carries the equivalent of 480 semi-trailer trucks.
For practical purposes, traffic on the McClellan-Kerr is limited to eight barge tows because of the dimensions of the locks, which are 600-feet long and 110-feet wide. Jumbo hopper barges, the workhorses of our industry, measure 35 feet wide by 195 feet long. The barges are lashed together three across and three long, with one missing. The towboat is positioned where the missing barge would be, forming a rectangle that fits into the locks. On the lower Mississippi River, where there are no locks, it is not uncommon to see tows of 30 or more barges.
Occasionally a 10 or 12 barge tow will traverse the system, but barges have to be separated and taken through in smaller groups at each lock, a tedious procedure.
In addition to economical waterway transportation, the waterway system provides beautiful lakes for recreation, sport fishing, hydroelectric power and municipal water supplies. Adequate water is assured year-round by a system of impoundment lakes that constantly feed water into the navigation system. These lakes also provide flood control.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the system 36 years ago, at a cost of $1.3 billion, and still operates and maintains it. Issues regarding safety, however, are the jurisdiction of the U.S. Coast Guard.