Waterways system reform: Best kept secret in Washington
By Derrick Cain
© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.
The Waterways Council Inc. (WCI) and the American Waterways Operators (AWO) discussed their 2014 legislative priorities Tuesday, largely focusing on congressional passage of water resources development legislation that would improve the nation's maritime travel routes.
During a press briefing with reporters, Mike Toohey, WCI president and chief executive officer, said the nation's waterways system, while reliable, is aging and in serious need of upgrades. He said that much of the infrastructure is more than 50 years old.
The groups said waterways are crucial for transportation of agricultural products such as corn, grain, soybeans and inputs including fertilizer. About 60 percent of U.S. export grain travels down the Mississippi River each year, as well as 22 percent of total domestic petroleum shipments and 227 million tons of coal, they said.
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 Army Corps of Engineers to develop and maintain port and waterways infrastructure needs, and support targeted flood protection and environmental concerns. Both bills were approved by large margins, and await further progress in conference negotiations.
Toohey said he expects final passage of a negotiated water projects development bill to be done around the end of April or early May. “But I picked [last December] before,” he said. “It's the best kept secret in Washington,'' he said, adding that congressional staff has been “vigilant” in not disclosing details. A House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee aide said no decision has been made on holding a public conference with the Senate.
The biggest impediment is getting a final agreement on how to authorize projects through the Army Corps of Engineers, Toohey said. Previously, the Corps would authorize a specific project, in a specific location, and for a specific amount of money - but now that approach is considered as giving earmarks.
Toohey said there are currently 25 “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects and only one is being funded -- the controversial and long overdue Olmsted Locks and Dam project on the Ohio River between Illinois and Kentucky. Toohey said that project's ever-increasing $3.1 billion price tag is “sucking the air out of our funding.”
Tom Allegretti, AWO chief executive officer, said his organization is also focused on legislation (S. 2094), introduced March 7 by Sens. Mark Begich, D-Ark., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., that seeks to set uniform standards for regulating ballast water and other incidental discharges from vessels, and clarify requirements for fishermen and other small-boat users. The bill has 20 bipartisan co-sponsors. Right now, the Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency regulate ballast water under separate, sometimes inconsistent federal statutes and regulations. Vessel discharge is most often rainwater and other runoff that accumulates on deck.
The legislation “gives a permanent exemption for fishermen and other small-boat owners who are not considered part of the problem,” Begich said. “This bill has broad bipartisan support and the backing of the maritime industry and Alaska fishermen.”
Allegretti said, “There's a great chance to move this bill in 2014. I feel like we have good momentum moving forward.”
Another issue AWO is involved with is the spread of Asian carp, which consume large amounts of plankton, plants, and aquatic animals and are considered a threat to the eco-system of the Great Lakes, which has a large fishing industry. Also, the carp can jump several feet out of the water as they migrate, causing safety issues for boaters. The Corps is presently studying possible steps to cut off Asian carp entry points into the Great Lakes.
Allegretti said physical separation between rivers and the Great Lakes is not a viable option, and would shift about $228 million of commerce to other modes, away from waterways. “The price tag is too high and it's not guaranteed to halt the invasive species,” he said.
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