This year marks an interesting milestone: the 50-year anniversary of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, MKARNS. At the time of its opening half a century ago, the endeavor stood out as the largest civil works project that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, USACE, had ever undertaken.
Arkansans benefit from the MKARNS in a number of ways. “We see 10-11 million tons of cargo on the river each year, and that cargo represents commerce to the tune of $4.5 billion,” said Tomas Rofkahr, who is a part of the USACE public affairs team in the Little Rock District. “There are businesses and ports all along the MKARNS that use the river to move goods worldwide.”
Recreation has also been positively impacted as the USACE parks along the system’s rivers and lakes see more than 18 million visitors a year, thus contributing various economic benefits to nearby communities.
“Recreation has benefited immensely from the MKARNS,” said Rofkahr. “One of the byproducts of building a dam is often the creation of a reservoir. Lake Dardanelle and Winthrop Rockefeller Lake are two great examples. Together they offer nearly 40,000 acres of water that fishermen, boaters and outdoor loving folks from all over Arkansas can take advantage of. The lakes themselves are ringed by picnic and camping areas that reach from Yell County to Franklin County. If you love the water, you have good reason to love the MKARNS.”
Rofkahr said the Little Rock District of USACE is one of the most visited Corps districts in the nation. They operate 146 public parks and access areas in Arkansas and Southern Missouri and provide around 500,000 acres of public land and water for recreation. Because the river links so many communities throughout Arkansas, there is the benefit of not only the USACE parks and recreation, but also easy access to a lot more.
“The Arkansas River cuts through the Arkansas River Valley, which is one of the most scenic and beautiful parts of the state,” said Rofkahr. “More than just being a marine highway that brings commerce to distant ports, the river connects five of our largest cities from Fort Smith to Russellville, to Conway, Little Rock and Pine Bluff. Each of these places are rich in history and are experiencing an incredible growth of recreation opportunities. From the new Monument Trail Mountain Bike trails at Mount Nebo and Pinnacle Mountain State Parks to the Wine Country Tours in Franklin County. Don’t forget Petit Jean State Park either, an amazing park with close access to the river. And where there’s river, there’s sure to be a USACE campground nearby.”
According to Rofkahr, one of their most popular destinations is Toad Suck Park due to both its easy access and proximity to Little Rock and Conway. Camping is the most popular activity supported along the MKARNS and their popular campgrounds often fill up months in advance.
There are more than 1,000 campsites available along the length of the MKARNS in Arkansas. Some of those are directly on the river while others are in nearby areas, or around the reservoirs. This can be everything from first-come, first-serve tent sites to sites capable of providing 50-amp power and water for modern RVs.
Little Rock stands out for having popular attractions right on the river. “Our day use area, Cook’s Landing, is right across the Big Dam Bridge and offers easy access to Burns Park, the River Trail, the River Market, the Clinton Presidential Library, and the Big Dam Bridge,” he said. “There’s so much amazing green space there right on the river and right in the middle of this very urban area. It’s not hard to see why it’s so popular.”
Russellville and Dardanelle are other river cities that have popular outdoor options in and around them. “The USACE park in the area that is most well-known is Old Post Road Park and Campground,” said Rofkahr. “It’s an extremely popular locale in the River Valley and super popular with students at nearby Arkansas Tech University. Old Post has tennis courts, basketball courts, baseball and soccer fields, an 18-hole professional disc golf course, hiking trails, and one of the oldest hand-built mountain bike trails in Arkansas. Better yet, if you’re a hiker, mountain biker, or wildlife lover there are the world-class Monument Trails at nearby Mount Nebo State Park.”
The MKARNS is also part of an interesting piece of Arkansas history.
Currently there are 18 locks and dams along the MKARNS, a monumental project and feat that took the cooperation and collaboration of many to accomplish. “As far back as the 1920s, there were folks in Arkansas and Oklahoma that wanted to develop the Arkansas River,” said Rofkahr.
“The problem of course was that the river wasn’t navigable in many areas, which limited its commercial use. It was also prone to dangerous flooding, which could impact homeowners and businesses miles away from the main channel of the river.”
Between the work of the Flood Control Act of 1936, which created the Southwestern Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the 1946 Rivers and Harbors Act, which authorized the building of the MKARNS, it was “determined that fixing one problem, flooding, and creating a navigable Arkansas River, could go together.”
The funding and ultimate completion of this large scale project came care of Senator John L. McClellan of Arkansas and Senator Robert S. Kerr of Oklahoma, and the system has since been named in their honor. This system that Congress approved created a series of reservoirs, locks and dams along the river that are used to raise the level of it enough to create a consistent 9″ foot channel that can be safely navigated by commercial river traffic, a thorough 24-hours a day 365 days a year.
Of note, since the historic 2019 floods in Arkansas, USACE has been working to repair damage to various campgrounds and parks up and down the MKARNS. If you are planning a visit, it is always best to call ahead or to check recreation.gov to see if a park is open or if its season has changed. Water levels and release schedules of the MKARNS locks and dams can be found at swl.usace.army.mil/Missions/Water-Management.
By Zoie Clift
About Arkansas Tourism
Arkansas Tourism, a division of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, strives to expand the economic impact of travel and tourism in the state and enhance the quality of life for all Arkansans. The division manages 14 Arkansas Welcome Centers and employs more than 60 staff members across The Natural State. For more information, visit www.arkansas.com.