TICHNOR, Ark. (KTHV) -- It is vital to our state's industry, recreation and economy.
Hundreds of companies use the Arkansas River Navigation System to transport their goods each year. But what happens if the water level drops too low, making it impossible to navigate? It could mean a drastic financial hit to the Natural State.
Last spring, we were seeing record flood levels on the Mississippi River, some of the worst since the 1920's. This year, it's the exact opposite. Because of this severe drought, the water levels have dropped way below normal, making it very difficult to navigate for barges and tugboats.
This time last year, you would never know the Montgomery Point Lock and Dam was even here except for it's control tower peaking above the water line.
"Normally, when the water isn't this low, these gates are laying on the bottom of the river and it just looks like a regular river flowing through here," says Jon Wedgeworth, Operations Manager with the Army Corps of Engineers.
It is the only dam of it's kind in Arkansas. But this year, those gates that are normally invisible are serving as a painful reminder of how much has changed.
"The Mississippi River is very, is unusually low," says Wedgeworth.
So low, in fact, reinforcements have been brought in to help.
"The dredge got here about 6 o'clock this morning. They got setup and started dredging about an hour and a half later," says Wedgeworth.
Their mission is to make the half a mile from Montgomery Point to the Mississippi River deep enough for barge traffic.
"They are combing through, making several passes back and forth sucking up sand, silt and clay and depositing it out in a deep hole in the Mississippi," says Wedgeworth.
It's a sight Lock Operator Michael Norton says is drastically different from one year ago.
"We came within about nine feet of the 1927 flood which was 172 feet so we were about 162 feet last year in June of last year," says Norton.
It is a 50 foot difference from the water level today. Wedgeworth says the Corp of Engineers built Montgomery Point to do exactly what it's doing today.
"What happened in the past without this lock and dam in operation was when water levels dropped this low, the White River especially would not be deep enough to maintain reliable navigation traffic," says Wedgeworth.
"We haven't locked in two years so it doesn't happen too often," says Norton.
A rare occasion but one Norton says they are prepared for, keeping industry moving despite Mother Nature's plans.
"When the water gets really low, we need to be able to operate these gates here and get this pool up where they can lock up and get into the Arkansas River," says Norton.
The Corp of Engineers says they aim to keep the White and Arkansas Rivers 300 feet wide and at least 9 feet deep.
That keeps the channels open to barge traffic and if they are closed even for a day, Wedgeworth says it can cost the industry millions of dollars.