Finally? Water resources legislation inches forward

By Derrick Cain

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, April 30, 2014 -- Congress appears to be closing in on passage of legislation aimed at improving the nation's waterways system, according to lawmakers and stakeholders.

The House's Water Resources Reform and Development Act (H.R. 3080) and the Senate's Water Resources Development Act (S. 601) would allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop and maintain the nation's port and waterways infrastructure needs, while supporting targeted flood protection and environmental concerns. Both bills were approved by overwhelming margins, and have been bogged down in conference negotiations.

But, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said Tuesday that “we are hopeful it is very near to resolution.”

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Once the legislation becomes law, Shuster said it is “critical” that lawmakers gets the measure back on a two-year cycle, “to ensure Congress has a fundamental role in the development of Corps of Engineers projects and in the oversight of the agency.” The last water resources bill was enacted in 2007.

Since then, Shuster said, “Congress has been silent on needed reforms and has failed to take action to develop, maintain, and support our nation's vital water infrastructure needs.” He commented during a committee hearing examining oversight of the Corps of Engineers.

Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, chairman of the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, said the House bill includes provisions to accelerate the “study and project-delivery process,” adding, “It is no longer acceptable that these studies take dozens of years to complete.”

Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, said it appears that a final conference report will head to the House and Senate floors in early May, and advance to President Obama in May or June. “They are in the process of dotting all the ‘I's and crossing all the ‘T's,” he said. 

Lawmakers had been arguing over procedures for authorizing projects through the Corps, among other things. However, Steenhoek said, “It appears no contentious issues remain unresolved. I do not expect much controversy.”

He said he expects the legislation will recommend increased funding for harbor maintenance, direct the government to take more responsibility over the long-delayed and increasingly more pricey Olmsted Lock and Dam project on the Ohio River, and streamline how the Corps studies projects.

“While the conference report hasn't been made public, it appears to be a good bill for navigation interests,” Steenhoek said. “Obviously, we won't know this for sure until the conference report is released, but the feedback I received was certainly cause for optimism.”

Meanwhile, Steenhoek's organization released a report Monday that advocates the use of public-private partnerships, or P3 projects, to improve the waterways and suggests locations that would be likely sites for such an approach. It recommends that the Corps, acting for the U.S., retain ownership of any lock and dam site under a P3 arrangement. It also envisions private investment in maintaining existing infrastructure rather than building new projects.

Steenhoek said there are a wide range of potential investors, including entities such as pension funds, if the investment opportunity is structured appropriately. “There is a lot of capital currently available for investing,” he said, noting that he expects the water resources bill to address this possibility.

Shuster's committee recently created a special panel to focus on P3 opportunities across all modes of transportation, and including water and maritime infrastructure and equipment.

Meanwhile, the Waterways Council and 82 agriculture-related groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation and the American Soybean Association, wrote a letter Monday to the leadership of the Senate Finance Committee to request an increase in user fees that barge and towing companies pay into the Inland Waterways Trust Fund.

The groups said the user fee, currently 20-cents-per-gallon of fuel used while operating on the inland system, should be increased to between 26 cents and 29 cents to help modernize the deteriorating infrastructure, which in some cases is more than 50 years old.

The user fee is matched by general Treasury Department funds and the money is dedicated to new construction and major rehabilitation of the system. The groups said the user fee increase is supported by those who pay it -- 300 commercial operators -- while the entire nation benefits, including hydropower, municipal water supply, recreational boating and fishing, flood control, national security, and waterfront property development. The groups want the committee to include the increase in a possible tax reform package or any appropriate revenue measure.

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