WEBBERS FALLS, Okla. — Stalled barge traffic up and down the Arkansas River, halted by the effects of late May flooding, may soon be able to resume, said Muskogee County District 1 Commissioner Ken Doke.
The shipping lane was closed following the crash of two barges into Webbers Falls Lock and Dam 16. Subsequent salvage and dredging efforts meant lowering the water level, Doke said, which rendered the channel unusable. With the two barges successfully extricated and repairs on the dam complete, water levels will rise again.
“The barges have been pulled away from the dam, and they’re being cut up and loaded into other barges. They’re doing the final repairs to the dam, and then once the repairs are done, they can raise the water levels back up,” Doke said. “They’re going to start raising water levels back up Wednesday, and it’ll take about a week to get that pool back to normal.”
Even after water levels have returned to normal, however, there remains a question of how much sediment has landed in the channel as floodwaters receded, Doke said.
“Shoaling in the main channel is going to make it questionable whether barge traffic can make it through,” Doke said. “There was some really bad silting in that main channel. It will actually be a foot above normal. The hope is that by running it a little high there’s some hope of getting barges around that, but they won’t know that until they try to run some traffic through there.”
The loss of the shipping channel has been disastrous for the Port of Muskogee and surrounding businesses who rely on barges to move materials and products, the county commissioner said.
“We need that barge traffic so we can get back to some sense of normal and make sure that our people can get back to work,” Doke said. “There are companies here that are very dependent on that barge traffic. It’s already raised our unemployment by 2 percent. They’re spending six figures a week more to ship things by truck rather than by barge.”
Dredging the main channel remains just one of the issues facing the beleaguered Port of Muskogee. Damage to the waterway and port are estimated to exceed $100 million, Doke said.
“Obviously those repairs will supersede our capabilities locally, but hopefully we can figure out at least some temporary solution for getting the traffic started,” Doke said. “We’re attempting to try and find the money it’s going to take to get repairs to the channel. We’re working with the governor’s office and federal delegation.”
It appears those efforts are bearing fruit, according to a release from Doke’s office Wednesday morning.
“River levels are on the way back up this morning. People in or around the river should exercise caution as water levels are expected to rise several feet per day for about a week. As soon as levels are back to normal, the barges will be loaded and shipped out,” Doke wrote. “The good news is that (at least some) federal funds have been loosened and there are dredging crews lined up to begin working on the channel very soon. That is great news for the companies who are dependent on barge traffic to survive, and it is extremely encouraging for the people who depend on those companies for their paychecks.”
Oxendine writes for Muskogee Phoenix, a CNHI News Service publication.