Kentucky's Riverports: The Heart of the State's Waterways System - Kentucky Farm Bureau

Kentucky's Riverports: The Heart of the State's Waterways System

Posted on Nov 3, 2023

With navigable waterways practically surrounding the state, Kentucky is prime real estate when it comes to the transportation of goods, including agricultural commodities, to strategic points in the country and around the world.

Whether it is grain moving down the Ohio River to the Mississippi, coal transports traveling the Big Sandy northward, or agriculture and manufacturing supplies from the south moving through the Kentucky Lake waterways to the Cumberland River, Kentucky has more navigable waters than any other state in the continental United States. 

Kentucky Farm Bureau First Vice President Eddie Melton, a grain producer from Webster County, said countless state growers depend on the waterways system to get many of their needed inputs for the farm as well as to get their products off the farm to national and international markets. 

“Perhaps the most important form of transportation we have for our state’s agriculture industry is the comprehensive waterways system stretching across Kentucky,” he said. “Because of that, our system of riverports become the vital link between farmers and the markets their products are destined for.”

Kentucky is home to seven public riverports, with an additional three being developed. There are also several private facilities. Melton emphasized that all of these are crucial components to the success of the overall waterways system.

“While each port is somewhat different in what commodities go out and come in, they are all part of the bigger picture of our transportation infrastructure,” he said. “Maintaining and upgrading this port system can only mean improved access for anyone who depends on this transportation mode and ultimately increases value to our economy.”

Most of the riverport infrastructure was built in the 1960s and 70s and upgrades and expansions are needed in many cases to accommodate the increase in grain production the state ag industry has experienced over the last 20 years, Melton added.

Graves County producer Jed Clark said a sound riverport and waterways system not only serves those who depend on the system from a local perspective, but it gives the agriculture industry an advantage in the world marketplace.  

“For years our competitive advantage over South American agriculture was our ability to ship products,” he said. “Our riverports are the first step in the ability to do so and having them maintained and updated gives Kentucky that competitive advantage.”

With approximately 40 percent of agricultural goods destined for export markets, Kentucky’s proximity to multiple waterways and riverports is a benefit other states don’t enjoy.

“Geographically, we are in about as good a place as we could be, from a farming perspective,” Clark said. “We have proven that the American farmer can produce the biggest, best, and safest crops in the world. But we can’t afford to lose ground to foreign competitors especially because of infrastructure issues.”

Clark like other producers in West Kentucky depended heavily on the Mayfield Grain elevator which was heavily damaged in the 2021 tornado outbreak that devastated the area.

"Because our local granary is no longer available, I've seen a lot more pressure put on our riverport facilities," he said. "Those bushels that were going to Mayfield Grain now have been spread out over five or six other delivery points. And being in the middle of harvest, we are certainly realizing the importance of these riverport facilities.”

Brian Wright is the president and CEO of the Owensboro Riverport Authority. He said while the grain storage capability at the Owensboro port has been increased over the years, more could be helpful. 

“The biggest issue with some of these grain facilities like this one, is when (a farmer) is taking corn and soybeans, which is what they predominantly do, and they don't have barge access, then they're limited to the capacity (on site),” he said. “And the goal is not to turn any farmer away when they need to deliver.”

While the Owensboro Riverport has a substantial amount of grain storage capacity, just shy of one million bushels of holding capability, Wright said three of the 30,000 bushels bins located there are at least 30 years old and could stand to be expanded and enhanced.

“It fills up quickly and that puts the grain company, (Consolidated Grain and Barge) into a position where they have to have barge access quickly,” he said.

That is not as easy as it may sound with varying water levels on the Mississippi River causing issues with barge traffic not only from a timing perspective but also resulting in rising transportation costs.

Still, river transportation has so many advantages over other transporting modes, Wright emphasized.

“Unfortunately, most all of us are accustomed to truck transportation, or our normal vehicles that we drive on a daily basis and unless you're in the river transportation industry or tied to the industry, it's really somewhat of a hidden jewel,” he said. “One of the facts that I had heard from a conference I recently attended with some of our state legislators was that 20 percent of our food actually leaves the river system on the inland river system for export.

Wright added that over 90 million tons of goods move through this system on an annual basis and it’s the whole system from elements at each port to locks and dams and the maintenance it takes to keep the river system operating at an optimum level.

In addition, river transportation can move much more at a time than other forms of overland modes along with being a more ecological choice. 

“It is a key transportation mode that not only is more cost-efficient, but it's environmentally friendlier than rail and or truck when you look at tons per mile pollutant and or fuel efficiency,” Wright said. “I think, when you look across the state of Kentucky, we have over 1500 miles of navigable waterways that support economic development in all the different regions throughout the state. And each one of our ports, the seven active ports, if you look at where they're at on the Ohio River system or the other river systems across the state, we can reach over 80 counties, what we call the hinterlands, which puts us within 90 miles of reach.”

As is the case with many sectors of the economy, education is a key component in order to make the general public, as well as state and local community leaders, aware of the value of the state’s riverports and its waterways system. 

“From a Kentucky Association of River Ports and Kentuckians for Better Transportation perspective, we represent all public ports across the state, and we are always trying to educate every person within the region here locally,” Wright said. “But at the state level, it's just as important for our representatives who are from counties that are not even remotely close to the river system.”

Melton said as long as Kentucky farm families continue to produce at high levels while looking to strengthen their bottom lines, the state’s river system must also continue to progress in order to meet their transportation needs.

“Keeping our ports and entire river transportation system operating at optimum levels, we all must realize their importance and advocate on their behalf,” he said. “With the strategic and geographical advantages we have in this state when it comes to our waterways system, it’s a no-brainer to update and improve this system not only to support our ag industry but to contribute to the overall economic well-being of the entire state.”    


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