TULSA, OK -- The U.S Army Corps of Engineers Tulsa and Little Rock Districts recently partnered on the major maintenance and repair of two locks on the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System. To demonstrate the importance of funding a regular schedule of such work, members of congress were invited to an open house to view the dewatering of Newt Graham Lock 18 August 27.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and Rep. John Sullivan (R-OK), joined representatives from the offices of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Rep. Dan Boren (D-OK) for a briefing from Navigation Project Manager Patrick McQueen about the work being done. Users of the navigation system from the Port of Catoosa described to the elected officials how important it is to their businesses and the local economy to ship goods through a reliable navigation system on a regular schedule.

"The consequences of failing to do the routine maintenance and repair for $1.5 million dewatering could result in the emergency closure of the lock and dam and that would cost the Oklahoma economy $1.3 million per day," McQueen explained. "This planned closure took months to organize. An unplanned closure would last a minimum of 30 days and could take 60 to 90 days."

The daily cost of an unplanned closure of the system was obtained by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation through a survey of businesses that use the waterway. The MKARN Impact Study, Metrics on the Oklahoma segment, was conducted in 2008 by the Waterways Branch of ODOT.

"We have about 80,000 to 85,000 tons of coil steel products coming through a year," said Dan Cates, general manager of coil processing for Steel and Pipe Supply. "It is vital to us that those locks and dams are maintained and in functioning order or at least, in the worst case, that I have plenty of notice when they're going to go down for maintenance so I can make alternate arrangements and keep a constant flow of goods."

Dallas Robinson, Terra Nitrogen plant manager, said his company supplies about 5 percent of the U.S. grain crop with nitrogen fertilizer. "We ship 300,000-500,000 tons out of the Port of Catoosa, so it is extremely important to us and the American farmer to keep our grain and food crop going," said Robinson.

<b>Port's economic impact relies on lock and dam</b>

The Tulsa Port of Catoosa employs 3,000 people and moves more than 2 million tons of goods each year. Port Manager Bob Portiss said, "If you don't keep this lock and dam fixed and in good operating condition, we don't have a port."

The Newt Graham Lock and Dam 18 had not been dewatered since 1989 due to funding constraints and high river flows. Ideally, the dewatering process should be done every 12 years to do the vital maintenance and repairs.

"The process of dewatering allows us to inspect and repair all known and unknown infrastructure problems," said Tulsa District Operations Division Chief Earl Groves. "It ensures the functional reliability of the lock for many years to come."

Groves said the $1.5 million cost of the dewatering project included "labor, equipment, supplies, materials - everything."

<b>Dewatering allows repair, inspection of gates</b>

Crews and equipment from Tulsa and Little Rock began the dewatering process Aug. 24 with the lock almost completely emptied of river water in three days.

"It's like pulling a plug on a bathtub," said Groves.

During the closure, crews replaced broken parts and sandblasted, cleaned, inspected and spot painted. There was also a major problem with the miter gate on Lock 18. Over time, the gates had been damaged and were leaking so the lower half was removed and replaced.

The portion of the navigation system between locks 17 and 18 was temporarily closed while the work was done.

Col. Anthony Funkhouser, Tulsa District commander, and Col. Donald Jackson, Little Rock District commander, led dignitaries on a guided tour of the lock and dam for a first-hand look at the wear and tear the facility had sustained over the past two decades. They were joined by Johnny Bell, chief of the Tulsa District's Technical Support Branch and John Roberts, Tulsa District deputy district engineer.

McQueen explained that age and logs and other debris had combined to damage the miter gate, resulting in water leakage. Some armor plates on the lock walls were found to be missing or damaged, as were timbers that protect anodes and the miter gates.

Any of these damages could have resulted in an unplanned closure of the lock and dam for emergency repair, McQueen said.

<b>Closure of the waterway would affect many customers</b>

Robinson said such a closure would have a trickle-down effect on Terra Nitrogen.

"It would cost us quite a bit of money to curtail our production, and then the downstream effect would be not to fertilize crops at the time it's needed," he said.

Cates said many of his customers would be left in the lurch because, for many of them, Steel and Pipe Supply is the exclusive supplier of steel products. He explained that if the navigation system shut down, several things would happen. "One is they would have a disruption in their flow of goods, and two is they would probably have to pay more for their products. That, in turn, damages their margin and makes them less effective," said Cates. "It would affect not only me but hundreds of customers in our Tulsa region. We service about 400 customers through my facility and through our sister facility, so you can imagine the trickle-down effect through those, as they would have disruptions."

Portiss said the waterway is a vital contributor to the Tulsa economy. "As a result of having the waterway and, therefore, the port, we have lowered transportation costs in our region by 15 percent, and that will continue to be that way so long as the port continues to exist. Plus it gives us an opportunity to attract certain kinds of industries that would be impossible to attract to our area because of the fact that you have enormous capability when it comes to barge transportation," he said.

The waterway offers the opportunity to ship product that is too large to be transported over roadways.

"Generally, over-the-road transportation is going to accept steel coil product like I purchase in the 22 A,A1/2 to 23 ton-per-coil range," said Cates. "The barge allows us to bring in 30 to 35 ton-per-coil weight which maximizes efficiency through my facility. But there is only one way to get them here, and that is on the barge."

Portiss said the port is home to several fabrication companies that build vessels that are too big for over-the-road transportation or too costly to move over the road.

"Not too long ago they moved probably ten of those units that were something like 60 feet long, 30 feet wide and 40 feet high all the way to Port Arthur, Texas, and they were built right here at the port," said Portiss. "It's just a prime example of a type of industry and a type of product that couldn't otherwise be here if it were not for the waterway."

Stakeholders also said the 445-mile long navigation system is efficient and less costly than other modes of transporting goods.

"It's both," said Cates. "With a little diligence on our side, we can anticipate our steel consumption needs, so we can schedule for the amount of time it takes to get the coils up here. It saves us $200,000 to $250,000 a year in freight versus other modes of transportation."

Robinson said shipping via the navigation system is also environmentally friendly because it gets trucks off the roads.

Hopefully the open house served to reinforce to the importance of funding the regular maintenance and repair of the locks and dams that make the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System a vital part of the economy.

Cates summed it up by saying "We're in hundreds of businesses that all rely on that ditch to get us our material so we can service them."

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16