An extensive overhaul of the nation’s waterway infrastructure – something a broad coalition of agriculture and shipping interests have urged for years – will begin after President Obama signs the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) of 2014.

To the relief of supporters, passage of the $8.2 billion legislation was not bucked by many lawmakers. After coming out of conference, the House passed the act 412 to 4 and the Senate, on Thursday (May 22), voted 91 to 7.  

The agriculture sector relies heavily on the waterway system as more than 60 percent of U.S. grain and other commodity exports are transported along it. Further, 95 percent of farm exports and imports move through U.S. harbors.

The waterways upgrade is expected to provide some 500,000 jobs.

It will also allow waterway preparations for the larger ships that will soon be able to pass through the Panama Canal.   

The canal’s deepening was addressed by Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt. “It’s been estimated our nation’s internal waterway system has more navigable water than the rest of the world, and these waterways happen to overlay the world's largest piece of continuous farmland. With the expansion of the Panama Canal and the explosion of world food and energy needs, we must take advantage of our valuable waterways to compete in the global economy.”

Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the importance of WRRDA to his home state “that relies on river ports, coastal waterways cannot be overstated. I look forward to this measure facilitating progress on dredging, flood control and other projects that are closely associated with the commerce and public safety in Mississippi.”

SPCC

Also included in the WRRDA are provisions that would affect the Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure (SPCC) rule that addresses on-farm fuel storage. Agriculture groups “have been urging Congress for several years to address this regulatory issue,” said the Louisiana Cotton and Grain Association in a statement. “The language in Section 1049 will raise the threshold level for triggering the SPCC rule from 1,320 gallons to 6,000 gallons. This amount is temporary pending a study, after which the level may remain at 6,000 gallons or be reduced to a level between 2,500 and 6,000 gallons.

“Professional engineer certification would be required for a farm with an individual tank capacity greater than 10,000 gallons, aggregate capacity greater than 20,000 gallons, or a history that includes a spill. Self-certification would be allowed for farms with an aggregate capacity between 6,000 gallons and 20,000 gallons.”

While appreciative of the act’s SPCC language, Arkansas Rep. Rick Crawford said “there is still more work to do. Small farmers and ranchers will enjoy much-needed relief from this costly burden, but I believe we must continue to push for a higher SPCC exemption that’s more reflective of a producer’s spill risk and financial resources. Farmers and ranchers are the best stewards of their land, and the government should not be in the business of imposing costly mandates for a problem that does not exist.”

Mike Strain, Louisiana Agriculture and Forestry commissioner, said once the bill “is enacted, it will enable economic growth of Louisiana and the nation’s trade by strengthening and maintaining a strong water resources infrastructure allowing efficient transport of goods to market.”

Weighing in

Among others weighing in on WRRDA’s overwhelming, bipartisan passage:

  • The National Corn Growers Association.

“Today, our representatives in the Senate took a concrete step toward repairing and improving our inland waterways through a vote that again showed overwhelming bipartisan approval for WRRDA,” said Martin Barbre, NCGA president. “We must improve our infrastructure, and we must do it now. Our locks and dams transport our cargoes today but were built in the 1920s and 1930s to accommodate far smaller loads and far less river traffic. For farmers in particular, it is crucial as more than 60 percent of the nation’s grain exports are transported by barge. The need is urgent; U.S. farmers and businesses rely upon this transportation channel to create economic opportunities at home and supply markets abroad.”

  • The American Soybean Association.

“The Senate’s passage of the waterways bill conference report today is another critical step toward ensuring a critical component of the soybean supply chain will receive the attention and upkeep it needs to keep our products moving,” said Ray Gaesser, ASA president and Iowa farmer. “Reliable waterways help take our soybeans from major growing regions to domestic processors and major exporting terminals, then on to valuable trading partners around the world. The efficiency of that system gives us a significant advantage over other soybean-producing nations, and is a huge part of why soybeans lead the nation in agricultural exports.”

  • The National Association of Wheat Growers.

“NAWG is pleased with the passage of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014,” said Paul Penner, NAWG president and wheat farmer from Hillsboro, Kan. “The near unanimous support the bill received in both the House and Senate signals how vital our inland waterways system is; both to America’s wheat farmers, who export nearly half the wheat that is grown domestically, and to our nation’s economy as a whole.”

  • Waterways Council, Inc.

“The nation’s towboat operators, shippers, and labor, port, conservation and agriculture stakeholder members of WCI applauded today’s passage of WRRDA,” said Matt Woodruff, WCI chairman. “This bill -- and, we hope, law -- will create American jobs, increase U.S. exports, keep our nation competitive in world markets, and enhance the reliability of the nation’s waterways transportation mode and critical supply chain link.”