Ag groups urge Senate to act to improve nation’s waterways

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — The National Grain and Feed Association and 20 other national agricultural associations urged the Senate to approve legislation (S. 601) that would reauthorize the Water Resources Development Act (W.R.D.A.). The Senate was scheduled to begin floor consideration on May 7 with a vote possible by later this week or early during the week of May 13.

“America’s inland waterways and ports long have provided U.S. farmers, ranchers and agribusinesses with a strong comparative advantage, enhancing our ability to efficiently and competitively serve domestic and global markets, as well as to secure essential crop inputs for production of grains, oilseeds and other agricultural commodities,” the agricultural organizations wrote in a letter distributed to senators on May 6.

“By far the lowest cost and most environmentally sustainable transportation mode, inland waterway transportation costs are two to three times less than other modes, translating into an annual savings of $7 billion,” the letter said. “Further, the Upper Mississippi and Illinois River System typically accounts for 60% of the volume of U.S. grain and oilseed exports. These exports and other navigation activity support more than 400,000 jobs. Meanwhile, more than 95% of U.S. agricultural exports and imports transit through U.S. harbors.”

The organizations noted that the inland waterways system risks becoming a “potential detriment” rather than a comparative strength for U.S. agriculture and other sectors of the American economy. The groups said 57% of the locks on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois River System were built in the 1930s with a projected 50-year lifespan. Of those, 26% are more than 70 years old. A 2013 infrastructure “report card” issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. inland waterways a D- grade.

The W.R.D.A. bill approved unanimously by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on March 20 would authorize 18 waterway projects, including several on the inland waterways. The bill also would mandate reforms to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ delivery of inland waterway projects, requiring the agency to improve inland waterways project delivery, complete new feasibility studies in less than three years, improve its environmental review process, and create two pilot projects to expand the local role in project implementation. The bill also would ensure all revenues deposited into the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund be spent on port maintenance. It also would create a process for de-authorizing projects that have not been completed.

While terming the Senate committee’s approval of W.R.D.A. “an important step,” the N.G.F.A. and the other agricultural organizations urged the measure be amended on the Senate floor to increase the barge diesel fuel user fee to provide the funding required to initiate and complete lock projects that would be authorized under the W.R.D.A. Under existing law, barge fuel user fee revenues paid by the industry are deposited in an Inland Waterways User Fund and matched dollar-for-dollar by federal appropriations. The group also sought an amendment that would allocate federal funds to cover the remaining costs for completing the Olmstead lock and dam on the Ohio river.

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