Senate panel reviews need for new water infrastructure bill

By Whitney Forman-Cook

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Feb. 10, 2016 - The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee met Wednesday to review the status of the country's ailing water infrastructure system and to plan its response - another Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) - that panel members predict will receive congressional approval this year.

Everyone on the committee, including Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and Ranking Member Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. - who disagree vehemently more often than not - said a new WRDA bill was critical to expanding exports of U.S. grain and other commodities, creating jobs and boosting the economy.

The last WRDA bill passed in 2014 after seven years without a major water infrastructure mandate. The law authorized a number of infrastructure projects and streamlined the way projects are proposed and implemented. Inhofe says he intends to get a WRDA bill enacted every two years. Currently the law has automatic reauthorization under budget authority.

“The U.S. marine transportation industry supports $2 trillion in commerce and creates jobs for over 13 million people,” Inhofe said in his opening statement. “For every dollar we invest (in infrastructure), we get $16.60 in benefits. If we as a country ignore the problems facing our waterways, ports and flood control infrastructure, those benefits and jobs will be at risk.”

Together we can feed the Bees"

Currently, the U.S. has 300 commercial ports, 12,000 miles of inland waterways, nearly 84,000 dams, 100,000 miles of levees and about 240 lock chambers. Together, they facility the movement of more than 70 percent of U.S. imports by tonnage and just over half of U.S. imports by value. A 2013 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), led by Norma Jean Mattei, gave the country's water infrastructure an overall grade of “D+”.

“We've been riding on the coattails of our parents and our grandparents and the investments that they made (in infrastructure),” Mattei, currently ASCE's president-elect, testified at today's hearing. “We have not really maintained it properly and we haven't modernized this infrastructure,” in most cases, since the different components were built, she said.

The nation's dams, on average, are 52 years old. About 16 percent, or 14,000 of those structures, are considered “high-hazard” because they are located above population centers; 2,000 need significant repair, which the Association of State Dam Safety Officials says will cost $21 billion.

ASCE's 2013 report card found that 91 percent of the nation's levees, which protect 43 percent of the American population, are in unacceptable condition and would cost about $100 billion to repair or rehabilitate.

The U.S. needs to invest $15.8 billion in water infrastructure - in addition to the $14.4 billion in planned expenditures - over the next four years if it wants to protect the nation's exports remove any drag on the GDP caused by failing infrastructure, or waterways that are too narrow or shallow to accommodate larger modern ships, ASCE says. With the extra funding, ASCE projects each American household would save about $770 every year with lower shipping costs.

The port director in Catoosa, Oklahoma, Bob Portiss, told the panel that steel, oil and a variety of agricultural products are about $11 cheaper per ton to ship by water than they would by other modes of transportation. To give an example, Portiss said the over 20 million bushels of winter wheat that are usually shipped by barge from Kansas and Oklahoma each year to ports on the Gulf of Mexico cost around the same price as a first class postage stamp per bushel.

“It would be devastating” to lose the ability to ship commodities by water, Portiss told the committee. U.S. trade volume is expected to double within a decade, he said, and without waterways, the U.S. would struggle to stay competitive globally, because “our highways, our railroads don't not have the capacity to move” the cargo alone.

Rob Robertson, the director of corporate logistics for Nucor Corp. - the nation's largest steel manufacturer and recycler - told the panel that several of the company's steel mills ship their raw materials via water almost exclusively because water transport is significantly less expensive.

“Every barge we utilize can move up to 1,700 net tons of raw material or product… the equivalent of 17 railcars or almost 80 trucks,” Robertson said. “When we fail to adequately maintain out ports and inland waterways… it threatens our ability to deliver goods to our customers in a cost effective manner.”

Another industry witness, John Swearingen, senior vice president of transportation and logistics with Marathon Petroleum Corp. said “nearly 40 percent of all domestic waterborne trade is crude oil or petroleum products, and 40 percent of the crude oil arriving at refineries is being shipped via water.”

“The longer it takes for a shipment to arrive due to (maintenance) backlogs at locks and dams, the more expensive petroleum products will become,” Swearingen said. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that manages navigation, flood control, shoreline protection and other vital water infrastructure, $70 million of the $170 million backlog is “critical,” meaning the infrastructure has a greater than 50 percent chance of failing in the next five years.

All five of the witnesses agreed a WRDA bill would help some of these critical projects get started and completed faster.

Several panel members also pointed to critical needs in water infrastructure that we can't readily see, and for that reason, often go overlooked, specifically maintenance and replacement of the country's estimated 1 million miles of water mains.

“Some of these pipes date back to the Civil War era and are often not examined until… a water main breaks” which happens about 240,000 times a year, Boxer said. Congress has a moral and fiscal obligation “to step up to the plate” on drinking water issues, Boxer said, because “they hurt people” and “cost taxpayers a fortune.”

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said repairing water mains now, “is the most fiscally conservative thing I can think to do.”

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“We have such an ancient, decrepit system of delivering water to people… that right now is putting our families, our children, or older folks in danger,” Booker said. “Lead poisoning is not just something that happened in Flint, Michigan, it's happening based on aging infrastructure all across our nation.”

ASCE gave drinking water infrastructure a “D” on its 2013 report card. (The group's next report card will come out in 2017.)

Booker is working on a Senate companion bill to the bipartisan Water Infrastructure Trust Fund Act (HR.4468) introduced in the House last week by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore. If the EPW committee is amenable, Booker would like to add the trust fund bill's language to this year's WRDA bill, he said.

Booker also teamed up with committee member Deb Fischer, R-Neb., on her SAFE PIPES Act (S.2276) - a Pipeline Safety Act reauthorization bill - this past November that addresses water, gas and other pipeline safety. The bill has made it through markup in the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

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