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September 18, 2019

Inhofe Highlights Need for MKARNS Modernization for EPW Committee

U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), senior member of the Environmental and Public Works (EPW) Committee submitted a statement for the record for an EPW hearing titled “Improving American Economic Competitiveness through Water Resources Infrastructure.” This hearing is the first in a series the EPW Committee is holding to consider the next Water Resources and Development Act legislation.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this hearing to hear from the stakeholders who build and use our nation’s water infrastructure.

I want to take a moment to speak about the MKARNS—the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System—which goes from Tulsa, Oklahoma, through Arkansas, reaching the Mississippi River. A Marine Highway route for waterborne commerce, the U.S. Department of Transportation upgraded the MKARNS in 2015 from a Connector to a Corridor route due to sustained, increased traffic volume. The MKARNS supports economic activity across a 12-state region, moving 10.9 million tons of commerce worth $3.5 billion annually.

MKARNS, the most western warm water port in the United States, is a vital corridor for agriculture commerce. Farmers and ranchers rely on the port’s availability year-round to move crops to market in all seasons and transport fertilizer domestically in preparation of the growing season each year. Intermodal facilities at ports along the MKARNS streamline the transfer of agricultural and other commodities through landside infrastructure onto barges for their efficient movement down to the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.

With our nation’s surface land transportation networks experiencing increased congestion, we must expand the capacity of our inland waterways to move additional freight in a cost-competitive manner. However, we face some significant hurdles in doing so.

Today, the MKARNS is facing $225 million backlog in “critical” maintenance project needs. A maintenance project deemed critical means that if the needed maintenance is not completed, there is a 50 percent chance of failure. Specific project in need of critical maintenance include: replacing Tainter gates at multiple locks throughout the system and repairing decade’s old concrete structures with exposed rebar integral to dam operability. Should any one of these critical maintenance projects fail before it can be addressed, use of the whole system would be impossible. 

Unfortunately, we already know the impact to Oklahoma if use of the MKARNS is not an option. Due to the terrible floods in Eastern Oklahoma this past May and June, tons of silt was deposited in the navigation channel of the MKARNS, necessitating the re-dredging of the navigation channel, an effort that likely will not be complete until this November.

As such, not a single barge has moved from the Port of Catoosa in Tulsa, Oklahoma since May 13. For four months and counting, the economic engine for 12 States has been silent – impacting every stakeholder dependent on the MKARNS. Hundreds of people have been temporarily laid off as small businesses and manufacturing facilities have been forced to idle production or shift resources to pay for more expenses means of transportation.

That is four months on one part of the system. Imagine the economic impact if Congress fails to address the critical maintenance backlog on the MKARNS, or any other part of the inland waterways system, and this happens again.

So what can we do? We can make it easier to address the aging infrastructure and critical maintenance of our nation’s inland waterways system by reducing needless environmental reviews and costly repetitive permitting requirements imposed by numerous federal agencies.

I was proud to support President Trump’s Executive Order to create a “One Federal Decision” process for environmental reviews and authorizations for major infrastructure projects. Earlier this year, the Environment and Public Works Committee codified the president’s “One Federal Decision” process for major surface transportation infrastructure projects in the America’s Transportation and Infrastructure Act of 2019. We should extend those permitting reforms to inland waterway infrastructure projects.

Today, multiple federal agencies create and review endless reams of paperwork, delaying the start of any project to address the critical maintenance needs of our inland waterways. With “One Federal Decision” we would accelerate project delivery, allowing for the review, permitting, and approval processes to be conducted more efficiently, saving time and money when starting new infrastructure projects.

I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure we address the critical maintenance backlog facing the inland waterway system in the next Water Resources and Development Act legislation.

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