OKLAHOMA CITY - Col. Michael Teague, Tulsa District commander, recently participated on a water panel during the Western States Land Commissioners Association winter meeting in Oklahoma City.
Bob Portiss, Port of Catoosa director, and Steven Greetham, Chief General Counsel for the Chickasaw Nation Division of Commerce, also participated in the panel.
Opening the panel, Cory Cox from the Arkansas Land Commissioners office, who also served as moderator, stressed the importance of talking about water and navigation even though many of the 23 states represented in the association were far removed from navigations systems such as the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas Navigation System in Oklahoma and Arkansas.
The state land commission offices that make up the association manage a combined 146 million acres of surface land, 220 million acres of minerals, and another 81 million acres of submerged land. Some of this land is school trust land, which generate funds for public education and other state programs. Some of the products, such as produce and minerals, are shipped to other states and even outside of the U.S. Inland navigation could be used to export these products, Cox said.
“There is a general lack of knowledge about inland navigation,” he said. “The West could benefit the most from this form of cheap transportation.” Teague echoed Cox saying that the fact that land commissioners are talking about water show just how interconnected the two are.
Bob Portiss, Port of Catoosa director, also on the panel, spoke about the importance of the MKARNS to the nation’s economy. He stressed that shipping was an efficient and economical way to transport goods.
“One barge can transport the same amount of oil that 265 semis can,” he said. “There are also extremely large, heavy items that can only be transported long distances via the navigation system.”
Portiss told of plans to set up Port of Catoosa sites in other locations. Goods would be taken to these sites and they would be taken into possession by the port and transported by truck to Catoosa where a spot on a barge would already be reserved. As of now, plans are to place a port site in northwest Oklahoma and another site in Kansas. Additional sites in other states may be considered later, Portiss said.
In order for the port and navigation to be successful there must be water in the system. That’s where Teague and the Corps of Engineers come in. Much of the country is in a drought and many of the reservoirs that release water into the MKARNS have lower than normal water levels. Though the levels are low, multiple purposes such as water supply, navigation, hydropower and others must still be met.
“So how do you balance all the needs?” Teague said. “Well you sit at the table with everyone involved and discuss it and you work through the challenges.”
One of the ways the Corps balances the water released from the reservoirs is to use it again and again.
“The water released from Eufaula Lake goes through the powerhouse and then ends up in R.S. Kerr and there it goes through the powerhouse again,” he said. As it travels down the navigation system, it passes through a few more powerhouses.” When you have a lot of water, approximately 10-12 million gallons, flowing downstream each time a lock gate is open, it’s important to use it as many times as possible, he said.
The MKARNS is part of the 12,000 miles of inland navigation that Corps of Engineers districts throughout the nation manage. The Corps large infrastructure inventory, 239 navigation lock chambers at 193 sites, have been used heavily over the course of many years and need maintenance and in some cases, major rehabilitation or replacement. As funding continues to decline, districts try to find ways to cut cost and work economically and efficiently.
“There’s a lot of competition for limited dollars, said Steven Stockton, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Headquarters Director of Civil Works. “We have a backlog of $60 billion in authorized projects that we chip away at about $2 billion a year.”
In the Tulsa District, the recent removal and replacement of a pintal ball at Lock 17 at Chouteau, Okla. was a major undertaking that was completed with in-house crews, which greatly cut down on costs for the replacement. This was the first time such a repair has been performed to a lock on the MKARNS. The entire lock was emptied of water so that the dam gate could be lifted and the pintal ball could be removed and replaced. Tulsa District engineers had no plans or drawings to follow so they had to use a process called “reverse engineering” to develop different scenarios and contingencies to remove the damaged pintal. The lock was scheduled to be closed for three weeks, however, the repair was completed ahead of schedule and the lock was only out of service for two weeks.
As infrastructure ages, preventative maintenance is needed so that issues can be caught early and corrected before a major problem occurs causing long term closures.
“We don’t have resources to have maintenance crews at each lock,” Teague said. “Crews based at the three marine terminals float to all the lock and dams in both the Tulsa and Little Rock Districts.”
Since the locks operate 24 hours a day 367 days a year, completing maintenance without impacting the navigation industry can be challenging. Teague said that the districts work with companies and ports to determine times each day that the locks can be closed for a few hours for maintenance based on current industry needs.
Teague wrapped up his presentation by saying that even with all the challenges, working with partners and finding solutions makes it all worthwhile.
“It is complicated and absolutely enjoyable,” he said.