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McClellen-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System - systems within a system

Public Affairs
Published March 17, 2014
A barge approaches a lock along the McClellen-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System. The system serves Oklahoma as a marine highway to the Gulf of Mexico and the world at large.

A barge approaches a lock along the McClellen-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System. The system serves Oklahoma as a marine highway to the Gulf of Mexico and the world at large.

The MKARNS, short for McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, serves Oklahoma as a marine highway to the Gulf of Mexico and the world at large. It provides transport of goods to and from Oklahoma worth $1.8 billion dollars in local commerce.

That’s $1.8 billion just in the shipping of goods. However, as part of a multipurpose, multi-beneficiary system, the MKARNS does much more for the local economy. The overall system – the marine highway and the reservoirs that help support it -- provides benefits of flood risk reduction, water supply, navigation, fish and wildlife habitat, hydropower generation, and recreation to this part of the country. 

The Corps faces a number of challenges to successfully operate this multi-faceted system.   

“It really is a magical system. And the emphasis is on system,” according to Earl Groves, chief of the Operations Division for the Tulsa District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Like the proverbial butterfly in Asia that flaps its wings and impacts the weather in America, each part of the Arkansas River system impacts every other part. 

For instance, when you release water from one of the seven hydropower-equipped dams that generate electricity to keep our lights on, it sends water downstream to the MKARNS. When a storm occurs and you release water from the flood pools, you send water downstream to the MKARNS. When you lock through a tow that is commerce on the system, you send the water that was used in the lock chamber downstream which adds to the water available for the next lock to use, and so on down through all the locks on the system.

Another aspect of the system is flood control. When it rains, the Corps is responsible for catching and holding the runoff in an attempt to prevent downstream flooding. The excess rainfall is stored in the flood pool which is the normally-dry part of the lake that contains campsites, picnic tables, playgrounds, boat ramps, and other recreation facilities. Recreation users want the water stored in the flood pool evacuated as quickly as possible.

Once the rain has stopped and downstream conditions permit, the stored floodwater is evacuated to prepare for the next round of storms. If the water is released too quickly from the reservoirs, it can impact the movement of barges on the MKARNS because swift water makes for unsafe conditions for barge traffic. 

In the opposite extreme, a drought causes recreation interests to be monetarily affected by receding shorelines and low water conditions. Drought also affects the amount of water available for generation of electricity to keep the lights burning, air conditioners working, and barges moving on the MKARNS.

Drought also magnifies parochial interests – stakeholders who lobby to keep water in the lakes as well as those interested in keeping it flowing out to fulfill the needs of those who bought and are continuing to pay for water storage for their use, such as water supply and water quality.

Michael Teague, former commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Tulsa District, explained the challenges this way. “The Corps has built the bathtub that stores water that has been bought and paid for by various users that have different ideas on how that water should be used.  We have the tough job of trying to satisfy those needs, come storms or drought. What I have found is if you get these various, sometimes conflicting, interests to roll up their sleeves, sit at the table together, and work as a team, they will come up with workable solutions. No one stakeholder is a winner over others, yet they all win by working together.

“In a drought condition, such as we are now experiencing, all partners work together to make sure every drop counts in some way. Hydropower interests begin to purchase electricity from other sources to preserve water in the lakes. Others, such as International Paper below Pine Creek Lake, implement water conservation plans that help prolong the time the conserved water will last. It’s a team effort,” Groves added.

An observer and stakeholder, Bob Portis, Executive Director of the Port of Catoosa said, “One of the things that I have always been impressed with by the Corps is their ability to put together a teamwork approach to solving problems. And they keep that teamwork in place.  Teamwork is not just within the Corps but they build teams involving customers, stakeholders, and others.  It’s a good recipe for success.”