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The South’s Top 10 Inland Waterways

(That will save you time and money)


These waterways have proven to be vital components of the South’s transportation system and they’re helping to dramatically reduce costs of manufacturers and producers.


By Trisha Ostrowski


In an uncertain world, it makes sense to have options.  That’s definitely true when your business relies on receiving raw materials or transporting products to customers. Locating near one of the South’s inland waterways could give your company a third shipping option beyond the more traditional truck and rail.


Shipping by barge is not just another option; in some cases in might be a better one.  Water transportation is statistically the most reliable, least expensive and most environmentally safe way to ship large products long distances.  Water transport is more than eight times more efficient than truck transportation and twice as efficient as rail.


Companies that locate around the South’s inland waterways also benefit from the cost-saving phenomenon of “water-compelled freight rates.”  The lower cost of barge transport means that nearby truck and rail services must reduce costs to compete, reducing transportation costs across the board.


The South is fortunate to have more than its fair share of inland waterways, but among these waterways, a handful in the region could be categorized as “great.”  As consultant Ron Coles, vice president and principal of Hanson Professional Services Inc., explains, “What makes a great waterway is reliability (abundant water availability and year-round navigation service), availability of developable industrial sites, proximity to market, and connectivity to other modes of transportation.”  All of the waterways profiled here excel in those areas — making them worthy of SB&D’s Top 10.


The Arkansas River

Shipping year-round


No icing in the area means that the Arkansas is a 365-day, year-round river, meaning that shippers have very little down time.  Also, because of its newer, well-kept infrastructure, virtually the only shutdowns on this waterway are for scheduled maintenance. 


Currently, the Arkansas River has a nine-foot navigational channel, but congressional approval has been granted and steps are being taken to turn it into a 12-foot one to accommodate larger ships.  This waterway also extends farther west than most of the South’s rivers flowing as far as Tulsa and has an abundance of outstanding port facilities.


The Red River

An abundance of industrial sites


What makes the Red River one of the South’s 10 best is the fact that it boasts ports and industrial parks along the river’s path. It sits in the middle of a Louisiana highway system that includes east-west Interstate-10 and Interstate-20 as well as north-south Interstate-49 and Interstate-55. 


What has transformed this waterway is the completion of a 30-year, federally funded project that straightened the stream, stabilized the river banks, eliminated flooding, and made year-round navigation possible.  The $1.9 billion Red River Waterway project added a series of five lock-and-dam complexes to the river.  Other enhancements have deepened the navigational channel to nine feet and increased the minimum width to 200 feet. 


The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway

The navigation link between the eastern Gulf and mid-America


The Tennessee-Tombigbee reduces navigation distance from Tennessee, north Alabama, and northern Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico by as many as 800 miles. Opened to commercial navigation in 1985, the Tenn-Tom has helped induce more than $6 billion in new and expanded industrial development within the waterway corridor, with $1 billion in new investments in 2005-2006 alone.  Companies that have located on or near the waterway include Boeing, Weyerhaeuser, Kerr McGee, Nucor, IPSCO Steel and numerous others.


One major advantage to the Tenn-Tom region is the availability of more than 40,000 acres for prime waterfront property featuring minimal environmental restrictions and affordable development costs. Shippers and producers that choose a Tenn-Tom location have access to a full range of public ports and terminals throughout the region.  In addition, the Tenn-Tom serves several deepwater ports, including Biloxi, Mobile, New Orleans, Gulfport, Panama City, Pascagoula, and Pensacola.


The Warrior-Tombigbee

Alabama’s most utilized waterway


The Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway stretches from the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains to the Port of Mobile.  As improvements were made to the Warrior-Tombigbee system over the years, an increasing number of companies have located along its banks.  Several state-owned and private dock facilities also have been built along the waterway.  A total of more than 25 million tons of goods and materials are transported on the Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway each year, including commodities such as chemicals, fuels, forest products, and iron and steel.


The Alabama River

From the capital city to the coast


The Alabama River stretches from the Port of Mobile to the state capital Montgomery.  At 305 miles long, this waterway is used extensively for transporting bulk materials, sand and gravel, and fuel products.


The downsizing in paper mills in the past decade, a former mainstay of this waterway, means increased capacity available to companies today.  Recognizing this advantage, New Gas Concepts Inc. recently announced it will build a wood pellet manufacturing center that will employ 100 in Selma.  The company will use the Alabama River to transport wood pellets that eventually will be bound for Scandinavia. 


Tri-Rivers Waterway

Maximizing its potential


The Tri-Rivers Waterway is composed of the Apalachicola River in Florida, the Chattahoochee on the Alabama-Georgia border, and the Flint River in Georgia.  It offers more than 300 miles of channels through the three states.  Since the early ’90s, however, these states have struggled to fairly allocate their shared water resources — a key issue for Atlanta’s growth. 


Despite the controversy, Tri-Rivers project leaders are working to develop a good game plan to help the river optimize its economic potential and create jobs, while at the same time working to attract clean industry.  Leaders are pursuing business growth along the waterway and also are promoting its potential for military use since Georgia’s Fort Benning is located at one end of the waterway.


The Tennessee River

Ideal for reaching the Southern Auto Corridor


The Tennessee River boasts good proximity to markets, especially automotive ones, making it ideal for transporting aluminum, steel and automotive components.  In total, the Tennessee River flows through parts of Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky.  Several sizable cities with more than 30,000 people each border on the waterway including Chattanooga, Tenn.; Decatur, Ala.; Florence, Ala.; Huntsville, Ala.; and Knoxville, Tenn.


Navigation has been improved on the Tennessee River because of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) systems of dams and locks.  A chain of river ports link centers of industrial activity.  In addition, these ports have good proximity to interstate highways as well as railroads, including both Class I and Short line.  Trends in commerce on the Tennessee River show that the waterway is currently averaging about 50 million short tons of cargo primarily made up of coal, raw materials, manufactured goods, and food and farm products.


The Cumberland River

Extremely reliable


The Cumberland makes our Top 10 primarily because of its reliability and access to the emerging automotive manufacturing corridor along I-65.  It has a strong network of carriers, is ice free and is well maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers.  On the Cumberland, the Corps has developed an exceptional lock-and-dam system including parallel locks to keep traffic moving. At 687 miles long, the Cumberland has averaged around 20 million tons of cargo annually for the past decade including coal, raw materials, manufactured goods and petrochemicals.


The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway

A water highway from Cape Cod to Key West


The northern part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (AIWW) is primarily used by commercial traffic.  Meanwhile, the southern segment that begins in Norfolk, Va., and runs for 1,246 miles to Key West is shared by both residential and commercial vessels. 


Commercially speaking, the AIWW has an abundance of activity.  Barges haul petroleum products, food products and manufactured goods.  According the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ latest data, 3.5 million tons of petroleum products, chemicals, wood and paper were transported on the AIWW.  In addition, the AIWW also is important to the military, which delivers fuel on barges to bases on the route.


The Ouachita and Black River

Access to the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River


The Ouachita and Black River basin extends from Louisiana to the Arkansas mountains.  Cities along this route include Jonesville, Columbia and Monroe/West Monroe in Louisiana, and Crossett, El Dorado-Smackover, Camden, Malvern, Arkadelphia and Hot Springs in Arkansas. 


Commercial navigation with a nine-foot-deep channel is available for a distance of 337 miles on the Ouachita-Black upstream of the Red River. Ports currently are being developed at Columbia and West Monroe, La., and Crossett, Ark., with several private ports also along the way.

Tennessee Valley Authority 


Marion, AR

 Opelika, AL

Winston-Salem, NC

Northeast Tennessee Valley

 Old Dominion Electric Cooperative

Tupelo, MS

Mid America Industrial Park 

Aiken, SC

 New Braunfels, TX

Martinsville-Henry County, VA 

Alabama Development Office 

Little Rock, AR

Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway

The Memphis Region

Roanoke, VA


Entergy Louisiana 

North Carolina

South Carolina

Tunica County, MS

Columbus, MS


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