Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran has asked the Army Corps of Engineers how it will set priorities for maintaining Mississippi river shipping lanes and harbors in light of reduced federal funding.

Cochran serves on the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee that conducted an April 13 hearing on the FY2012 budget requests for the Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation.

Cochran cited President Obama’s budget request for the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project (MR&T) that recommends $210 million in FY2012, which is $100 million below the FY2010 discretionary budget authority for this Corps of Engineers mission.

“I can’t help but wonder how we reconcile the economic requirements of being a robust exporter of goods, services and commodities in the international marketplace while reducing the capacity to handle cargo on the Mississippi River and its ports,” Cochran said. “Insufficient dredging and an inadequacy of funding for these activities will inevitably result in restrictions on shipping traffic and cargo.”

Cochran questioned how the Army Corps of Engineers will meet the objective of the MR&T to uphold, maintain and improve the Mississippi River system and associated levee system. More than $100 billion in exports traverse this 12,000-mile river system annually.

“We have great interest in this subject beyond Mississippi and Louisiana.  Industries in over 30 states greatly rely on the Corps to maintain the river at authorized depths,” Cochran said. “In the face of these national interests and limited resources, we are interested in just how the Corps will cope with that reality.”

Lt. Gen. Robert L. Van Antwerp, Commanding General of the Army Corps of Engineers, responded that his agency will be forced to prioritize the use of federal funding based on commercial impact and safety risks. He acknowledged that utilizing limited funding to maintain river depths often results in narrower shipping lanes.

Van Antwerp said, “Maintenance requirements are increasing, increasing. So we prioritize those by the greatest risk, the most commerce that passes through there.  But we do treat our waterways as a system. We have to keep the whole system open. If we have one lock go down, it can impact the whole waterway.”

Cochran also addressed the future of the Yazoo Backwater Project, a project authorized by Congress in 1941 to provide flood protection to the lower Mississippi Delta. It is currently the subject of a federal court suit and the President’s FY2012 budget recommends cancelling all unobligated balances for continued construction. The FY2011 budget agreement which was approved by Congress on April 14 rescinds $22 million from this project.

For more, see Yazoo Backwater Project.

“The future of this project still remains a very troublesome issue,” Cochran said. “I hope the Corps and others who are interested will work with supporters of the project to try to reconcile differences and come up with an alternative that is acceptable.

“I don’t have any magic solution to suggest, but we would be glad to work and cooperate with the administration and others in Congress. I raise the issue as a possible beginning of another effort to provide the needed flood control in the South Delta.”

The Yazoo Backwater Project was authorized by Congress as an important flood control project for the lower Mississippi Delta, a region that continues to be troubled with wastewater pollution and property damage from flooding. There is pending litigation against the Environmental Protection Agency for wrongfully using an administrative veto to cancel the backwater pump project.