Chalk one up for bipartisanship. On Wednesday (Oct. 23), the House passed the Water Resources Reform Development Act (WRRDA), H.R. 3080, on a 417 to 3 vote.

The legislation, which could cost taxpayers some $8 billion over a decade, is aimed at improving an aging U.S. waterway infrastructure – something that the agriculture sector relies on heavily as more than 60 percent of America’s grain and other commodity exports are transported along it.Further, 95 percent of farm exports and imports move through U.S. harbors.

Last May, the Senate approved its version of the legislation – the “Water Resources Development Act" (WRDA, S.601) – on an 83 to14 vote. The House and Senate bills now face a conference to reconcile differences.

The White House issued a statement supporting the House bill, although with caveats. “The Administration supports investing in the nation's water resources to build the foundation for long-term economic growth, to address significant risks to public safety, and to protect and restore our environment. The Administration's key policies and principles will help meet our nation's water resources challenges in a fiscally responsible way. The Administration supports House passage of H.R. 3080 as it would advance some of these policies and principles, but it should be improved with additional reforms and modifications of problematic provisions.

“Currently, the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) has a $60 billion construction backlog and increasing operation and maintenance costs of existing infrastructure. The Administration supports provisions in the bill to de-authorize projects that no longer meet the nation's needs or have become too costly. The bill, however, would authorize the Corps to construct several new projects that the Administration has not recommended for authorization due to their marginal return on investment or other concerns. The Administration would like to work with Congress on authorizations of projects and studies that provide high economic and environmental returns to the nation, or address a significant risk to public safety, within the Corps' three main missions: flood and storm damage reduction; commercial navigation; and aquatic ecosystem restoration.”

Read the full White House statement here.

Last spring, shortly before the Senate’s vote, Farm Press spoke with Debra Colbert, senior vice president with the Waterways Council, about the state of the nation’s waterway systems. Colbert explained the pressing need for funding and action. “The problems that we’re facing in the inland industry is that the lock and dam infrastructure are outdated. More than half of the locks and dams have exceeded their 50-year design life. We’re seeing a lot of aging and continual degradation of the system.

Read the entire story here.

“While it’s still reliable for shippers, if we continue funding it at the insufficient levels of the last several years that trend will quickly result in the system’s unreliability and potential catastrophic failure. Some of the issues related to the low-water crisis that threatened shipping in 2012 could be a regular occurrence.”

Colbert also explained the “deal” between shippers and the government.“Essentially, what’s being done currently – which has been in place since 1986 when a waterways bill was enacted – is a deal between the government and barge and towing operators. The operators pay for half of the cost of new construction of navigation projects and major rehabilitation on the system. That 50 percent is paid for through a 20-cent-per-gallon fuel tax based on the amount of diesel fuel burned on the system.

“That means there are only about 300 taxpayers that pay into the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. Recreational boaters don’t pay it, commercial fishermen don’t pay it, passenger vessels don’t pay it. We’re the only segment that pays that user fee.

“Generally, that user fee generates around $85 million to $100 million per year. That amount is then matched by the government’s general treasury dollars. Again, those funds are to be used for new construction and rehabbing the waterways system.

“Some continue to say that we’re the most highly subsidized transportation mode. That is completely and totally inaccurate. In fact, we pay into a system that benefits many – those who receive hydro-power from the dams, municipal water supplies, flood control and protection, waterfront development, and many other things. All those things are as a result of the lock and dam system.”

Asked how much is needed to fund the needed construction, Colbert said, “an annual, sustained amount of $380 million per year for the next 20 years. Now, $110 million of that would be paid for our user fees. The rest would come from the government.”

The Senate bill, she said, “calls for a number of things. First, they’d raise the amount of the user fee from 20 cents to between 26 and 29 cents per gallon. … We want to raise the amount we pay because it’s an investment that will pay off later.

Ag news delivered daily to your inbox: Subscribe to Delta Farm Press Daily. 

“Second, we want to prioritize needed projects across the board. We need a matrix based on how far along they are, what their cost/benefit ratio is. Are all the Environmental Impact Statements completed? Are we starting from scratch?

“We’ve also asked the government to take on the dam features of these projects. That would allow us to focus on using the user fee to pay for the new construction and rehab of the locks.”

Much more on U.S. waterways and agriculture here.