The U.S. waterways infrastructure – crucial to the nation’s farmers as a way to export crops and receive necessary inputs – received a major boost when President Obama signed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) into law on June 10. Obama said the legislation that easily passed Congress will “put Americans to work modernizing our water infrastructure and restoring some of our most vital ecosystems."

Obama’s action was shortly followed by approval of the House Appropriations Committee’s Energy & Water Subcommittee’s 2015 appropriations bill funding the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Civil Works program. The subcommittee approved nearly $5.5 billion in spending for projects the Corps will oversee.

The WRRDA was not an immediate success story. Proponents of the legislation have pushed for waterways improvements for over seven years.

Among those proponents is the Waterways Council, Inc., which counts among its members a broad coalition of interested parties. On June 12, Debra Colbert, senior vice president of the organization, spoke with Delta Farm Press about WRDDA and what the U.S. agriculture sector can expect. Among her comments:

What’s been your experience over the last few months with this legislation? Any hiccups that worried you?

“No. We were pretty confident the bill was going to move through successfully.

“Frankly, that was due to the strong, bipartisan relationship between (California) Sen. Barbara Boxer and ranking member (Louisiana) Sen. David Vitter in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Correspondingly, the same was true in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee with Chairman (Pennsylvania Rep.) Bill Shuster and ranking member (West Virginia) Rep. Nick Rahall.

“Several years ago, we presented testimony to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. A number of people were there from the port community, the president of one of Cargill’s marine units, folks from the building trades, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others. The panel spoke about the need for reauthorization that we’d waited on for seven years.

“At that hearing, Sen. Boxer said, ‘you know, as soon as we get back from our recess and elections, we’ll begin working on WRDDA and we’ll pass it. We’re going to do it collaboratively and reach across the aisle. Mark my words.’

“Vitter agreed and said reform measures were important to improve the process delivery from the Corps of Engineers.

“So, right off the bat, before there was even a first draft of Senate legislation, we knew they’d work hard to get it done. Sure enough, it sailed through in each chamber with very strong support. Following conference, WRDDA passed overwhelmingly.”

Panama Canal expansion

How does this tie into the expansion of the Panama Canal and how the U.S. will address the larger ships that will allow?

“In our membership there are different views on what that expansion will really be.

“Some say, ‘we don’t think there will be a significant amount of impact.’ Others say, ‘yes, there will be and we must be ready for that.’

“It’s hard to predict but most think we need to be ready. That was a background driver for moving WRDDA forward, as well.

“Infrastructure improvements can be put off far too long. With the Panama Canal expansion looming in the back of folks’ minds we need to prepare with properly dredged channels to get the larger ships to port and moving on. We must, as a nation, be able to capture the prosperity that will come with that.”

Agriculture’s role

Can you address the agriculture proponent of your coalition? How important was that in moving Congress?

“It was, perhaps, the most critical component.

“Our coalition has labor groups, as well. They have a lot of skin in the game since we’ve seen jobs fall off during the recession. They were also calling loudly for this bill.

“But the ag sector -- corn growers, soybean growers, seed groups, fertilizer companies, all of them across the board -- rose up and raised their voices to get this done. They repeatedly made the point that the waterways are the most cost-effective way to move commodities and without a modern, efficient waterways infrastructure we can’t compete as well.

“So, agriculture was critical to get this done. We’ll rely on agriculture again when we call for an increase in the user fee.”

User fee

Where does the user fee issue stand?

“We originally pushed for the user fee increase to be part of WRDDA. We thought that made sense.

“But there was pushback and some in Congress didn’t want it included. The legislation needed to be as non-controversial as possible.

“We look at this as a ‘user fee’ and not a tax. To operate in the system, there is currently a 20 cent per gallon of diesel fuel fee which is matched by the government. We want to raise it to 26 or 29 cents per gallon. Those funds would be used for new construction and major rehab.

“But some (lawmakers) disagreed that it isn’t a tax. Some of them signed onto the ‘no new taxes’ pledge and want nothing to do with this -- traditional tax, or not. So, it wasn’t a surprise it wasn’t included in WRDDA.

“Champions of the user fee attempted to attach it to the tax extenders bill. That isn’t the traditional place it would go and it was ruled as non-germane.

“Now, we’re waiting for the next appropriate revenue measure that might move where it could be attached. Or, it may be part of tax reform in the next Congress.

“In terms of that, we feel that’s gotten some traction already. Thanks to our ag stakeholders and others, we sent a letter signed by almost 80 stakeholders to the House Ways and Means Committee asking for the user fee and the reasons why it’s important. In turn, when chairman (Michigan Rep.) Dave Camp released his discussion draft of the tax reform bill he included a proposal to raise the user fee by six cents. He also referred to the letter, which is very unusual.

“Once tax reform moves, we expect the user fee included. That may be a six cent increase or the six-to-nine cent increase we’ve been pushing for.”

Job creator?

Is it your understanding that 500,000 jobs could be positively impacted by WRDDA?

“We understand that there are 500,000 jobs in the inland sector alone. In terms of the construction jobs, I’m unsure of the number. The Corps of Engineers subcontracts much of the work to build and maintain locks. These are good, nice-paying jobs so it really will help the economy.

“Now that WRDDA has passed, the money really needs to follow through the appropriations process. We just saw the House numbers come out of the subcommittee that funds the Corps civil works mission -- the highest we’ve seen.

“The Senate is expected to mark-up (the week of June 16) and we expect those numbers to be high as well. Everything appears to be coming together as it should.”