Rogers County Commissioner Lobbies D.C. for Dedicated Waterway Funding

TULSA, Okla. - Oklahoma's and the nation's inland ports and waterway system could get a critical boost in financial support if one Oklahoma elected official gets his way in Washington.

The National Association of Counties NACo is the organization that lobbies on behalf of the nation’s 3,069 counties. One county commissioner from Oklahoma took the initial steps at NACo's legislative conference this week to get it to lobby Congress for a permanent source of funding for the nation’s inland waterways.

"Highways got it now, the deep draft ports, which are the ones with all the ships with the containers, they’ve got dedicated funding," said Rogers County Commissioner Ron Burrows, "the inland waterways do not."

And Commissioner Burrows says that's a big concern in Rogers County, home to the Ports of Catoosa and Inola, and the 3,000-plus jobs he says they provide.

"We are really good in this country at building things," said Burrows in an interview Monday, "and we do a poor job maintaining them."

The U.S. inland waterway system, 12,000 miles of rivers and 237 locks, moves close to twenty percent of the nation's freight annually, including about 11 million tons of cargo in and out of Oklahoma's ports each year.

"The biggest export that Port of Catoosa has is agriculture," said Burrows, "so, Western Oklahoma is a critical part of that, Southern Kansas is a big part of that, even as far as the Dakotas."

From the two Tulsa-area ports, barges navigate 445 miles down the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (MKARNS) to the Mississippi River, but only, Burrows points out, if all 18 locks and dams along the way are functioning.

"If one of those fails, the whole system completely shuts down," said Burrows. "They are all 50-plus years old, and they’ve had some maintenance, but they are really in need of some replacement and serious maintenance."

The MKARNS is getting some funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, but Burrows says that's a one-time grant -- his proposal would guarantee ongoing support. He says the source of the funding isn't yet clear and would ultimately be up to Congress to determine.

But in the meantime, Burrows says his resolution passed out of the NACo Transportation Committee yesterday "unanimously, I’m happy to say."

It will go before the full membership this summer in Austin.

The conference wraps up tomorrow with an address at the conference hotel by President Biden.