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Closed Shipping Lanes Pose Yet Another Problem For Oklahoma’s Wheat Farmers

The Newt Graham Lock and Dam near Inola, Okla.
The Newt Graham Lock and Dam near Inola, Okla.

Slow moving storms that dumped record amounts of rain on Oklahoma in April and May killed the five-year drought, but damaged wheat crops in western Oklahoma. This after one of the worst wheat harvests on record in 2014.

Now, as The Journal Record‘s Brian Brus reports, wheat farmers are facing another hurdle: A closed Port of Catoosa on the Arkansas River that usually carries their product to markets outside of Oklahoma.

Port Director Bob Portis said the river system has shut down commercial traffic for about 30 days, severely reducing the volume of product that normally moves through the port on barges. According to the most recent tallies, total shipping for the entire McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System in May was about 60 percent lower than normal, at 347,336 tons. Of that total, 157,200 tons were shipped through Oklahoma. Those statistics are largely based on the first nine days of the month when navigation was still possible, he said.

But Brus reports the same flooding rains that shut down shipping on the Arkansas River have also delayed the wheat harvest, and that has kept a bottleneck from forming, for now.

Phil Guettermann, spokesman for Gavilon Grain barge shipping company at the port, said his company typically expects annual fluctuations, but this season has been unusually severe. “Fortunately we have enough storage space to take up the wheat as it’s ready, to keep everything from plugging up as long as it gets warmer soon,” he said. “If the river stays closed another couple weeks, it’s going to get tough for everyone.” Guettermann said weather forecasts suggest water levels could drop enough to allow shipping activity by the Independence Day weekend.

Still, despite the flooding rains that came too late in the season and closed shipping channels, the 2015 wheat harvest is still expected to more than double the disastrous harvest of 2014.

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership among Oklahoma’s public radio stations and relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Logan Layden is a reporter and managing editor for StateImpact Oklahoma. Logan spent six years as a reporter with StateImpact from 2011 to 2017.
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