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'Classic Oklahoma story': Renowned Port of Catoosa waterway celebrates 50th anniversary of navigation system
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'Classic Oklahoma story': Renowned Port of Catoosa waterway celebrates 50th anniversary of navigation system

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CATOOSA — Federal, state and local officials gathered Friday at the Tulsa Port of Catoosa to laud Oklahoma’s most invaluable liquid asset: the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (MKARNS).

The occasion was the 50th anniversary of then-President Richard Nixon’s dedication of the inland commercial navigation system, which has contributed $8.5 billion in sales since its creation.

“This is the classic Oklahoma story,” Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said. “We are here celebrating what is really I think maybe the greatest return on investment in the history of American infrastructure.”

The facility was named after U.S. Sens. John L. McClellan of Arkansas and Robert S. Kerr of Oklahoma, visionaries for the project, which was undertaken as a way to mitigate flooding and create economic opportunities.

When Kerr was Oklahoma governor in the 1940s, he recognized that “something needed to be done to tame the water systems and the river systems in eastern Oklahoma,” Bynum said. “But in classic Oklahoma fashion, and this is where I think eventually Senator Kerr really showed the genius that led him to have the career that he did, he didn’t just think about how we can we fix the problem.

“He thought about how can we take a problem and turn it into an absolute gold mine for eastern Oklahoma. That was by teaming up with the senator from Arkansas, John McClellan, who, when you read histories about him, is referred to as this `Quiet Giant’ of the Senate, a man who got things done but wasn’t jumping in front of the camera every chance to advertise the work that he was doing.”

The Tulsa Port of Catoosa sits at the head of MKARNS, which contains 18 locks and dams, is 445 miles long and runs from the port to the Mississippi River.

Operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, it supports economic activity across a 12-state region, supporting 55,000 jobs.

“Not only were the dams built along the way to reduce flooding that was occurring but locks were built along the way that could unlock exports in this part of the United States for export around the world in a way that they had never been before,” said Bynum, remembering the waterway’s origins.

“One of the great stories in the history of this system is that it has been self-sustaining…Billions of dollars of exports and imports have been facilitated because of this navigational system and this facility where we are today.”

Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell said five to six years ago, he used to pick up product shipments from the Tulsa Port for his wife, Lisa Pinnell, who invented the Shopping Cart Hammock by Binxy Baby. It was during that time that he realized how big an impact MKARNS makes from a global perspective.

“The small-business owners that are the backbone of this state and this country … it’s this port that helps those small business owners.”

MKARNS, which moves everything from chemical fertilizer to agricultural products to iron and steel, allows companies to transport millions of tons of bulk freight by barge each year at a fraction of the cost and environmental impact of rail or truck.

At the Tulsa Port of Catoosa, which supports more than 70 companies and 3,000 employees, more than 87 million tons have been shipped since 1971.

“This vital 445-mile system strategically connects the heartland of the United States and the rest of the world,” said Brig. Gen. Christopher Beck of the Corps. “In addition to its importance the navigation industry, the MKARNS provides benefits of federal and non-federal hydropower, recreation, water supply and fish and wildlife ecosystem benefits that are critical to the economic and environmental welfare of the region.”

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Tulsa Port of Catoosa

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