The McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (MKARNS) first opened in 1970, creating 445 miles of navigable waterway from the Port of Catoosa in Rogers County, Oklahoma, to the Arkansas River’s junction with the Mississippi River 600 miles north of New Orleans. The waterway supports billions of dollars in annual economic activity and thousands of jobs in Oklahoma, as well as providing the state with improved flood control capacity, increased water supply, and numerous recreational and tourism opportunities. Continued infrastructure investment from the federal government is necessary to maintain this economic lifeline for Oklahoma.
History of the McClellan-Kerr Waterway
The MKARNS was built and is maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The infrastructure project was first authorized by Congress in 1946 following years of advocacy by U.S. Senators McClellan, of Arkansas, and Kerr, of Oklahoma—the namesakes of the river system. Construction on the first of the 18 dams and locks which make up the navigation system began in 1963, and construction on the waterway was completed in 1970. The system’s inaugural shipment, carrying 650 tons of newsprint, reached the Port of Catoosa near Tulsa on January 21, 1971.
In 2015, in recognition of the shipping route’s continued growth, activity, and economic importance, the U.S. Department of Transportation designated the McClellan-Kerr Waterway a U.S. Marine Highway Corridor, giving the system the same federal status as other major U.S. waterways such as the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.
Economic Impact of Oklahoma’s Waterway
In an increasingly globalized economy, the McClellan-Kerr waterway provides Oklahoma with a critical connection to worldwide trade. Oklahoma’s two public ports (the Port of Catoosa and the Port of Muskogee) as well as six private ports annually import or export more than 6 million tons of goods worth about $2.5 billion, and directly create more than 7,000 jobs within the state. In addition to the shipping industry, hydroelectric energy production along the waterway provides electricity to more than 600,000 Oklahomans, and 1.2 million people visit recreational facilities along the river system in the state annually. The total economic impact of the waterway in Oklahoma supports more than 22,000 jobs.
In addition to contributing to the state’s economic growth, the river system saves Oklahoma businesses millions of dollars annually. By using the waterway to export their goods in lieu of traditional overland transportation methods, farmers in the state save more than $150 million per year in shipping costs. Improved flood control provided by the system is also estimated to have prevented over $11 billion in damages since its construction.
Federal Challenges Ahead
The McClellan-Kerr waterway is fully maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, requiring federal approval and funding before projects can be undertaken. Currently, the system has a backlog of $143 million in critical need projects, many of which have a 50 percent chance of failure in the next five years. The chance of infrastructure failures along the waterway is a threat to Oklahoma’s economy, especially in the agricultural, energy, and manufacturing sectors.
In June 2018, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Water Resource Development Act (H.R. 8), which authorizes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to undertake projects designed to maintain, update, and improve waterway infrastructure projects throughout the United States. The bill is currently awaiting action in the Senate. Congress must also authorize funding for the Army Corps of Engineers through the appropriations process to ensure the authorized projects are undertaken. Currently, over $100 billion in infrastructure projects have been approved by Congress but have not received funding. The Trump Administration has made investment in the nation’s infrastructure a central theme when discussing federal budget priorities, but action on the President’s infrastructure plan has been delayed and specific courses of action for the nation’s waterway projects have not been revealed.