Aiming to update existing U.S waterways infrastructure and provide additional funds for future projects, on May 15 the Senate passed the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) on an 83 to 14 vote. The act was backed by numerous business, labor and agriculture advocacy groups.

Companion legislation in the House -- “Waterways are Vital for the Economy, Energy, Efficiency, and Environment Act” (WAVE 4, H.R. 1149) – is yet to be taken up.

Some 60 percent of the nation’s waterways infrastructure is at least 50 years old and there is a pressing need to refurbish ports and the river transportation system.

The waterways system, “allows less congestion on the highways,” said American Farm Bureau transportation specialist Andrew Walmsley. “It allows us to move products more cost-effectively. One 15-tow barge is the equivalent of about 216 rail cars or a little over 1,000 semi trucks. So you’re talking about a huge amount of products that are not congesting roadways or railways. When you look at transporting freight by water about one gallon of diesel fuel can move a ton of cargo 616 miles. That beats out rail at 478 miles or a truck of about 150 miles.”

Further, said Walmsley, “It’s really our superhighways on water. Over 60 percent of ag products that go to export move on our inland waterways system. You have vital inputs for everyday life, whether it’s coal, fuel, feeding grains, inputs for agriculture travels on our inland waterway system.”

More from Walmsley here.

Producers will also be interested to know that the WRDA legislation also contained language to exempt farms with above-ground oil storage tanks with an aggregate capacity of less than 10,000 gallons from the EPA’s Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure rule.

According to Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, “The fuel spill rule propounded by the EPA poses an unnecessary financial and regulatory burden on farmers. The legislative corrections we’ve incorporated into the (WRDA) are reasonable from both the farm operations and environmental protection standpoint.”

In late March, prior to the Senate taking up the waterways legislation, Debra Colbert, senior vice president of the Waterways Council, explained the importance of rehabbing the system. “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.”

Read that story here.

Following the passage of the WRDA in the Senate, Colbert again spoke with Farm Press on May 21. Among her comments:

Did you get what you wanted out of the Senate legislation? Were there things left out that you were hoping would be in the bill?

“We got a fair amount of what we wanted and are certainly happy about that. The one key element we really need to see make it into the House bill would be the user fee increase. But we did get just about everything else we were pushing for in the Senate (bill).”

Why didn’t the user fee go through?

“We came to find out that any revenue enhancement measures need to originate in the House. That’s a constitutional matter. So, to keep a regular order for a bill moving through the Senate floor, according to (Senate Leader, Nevada Sen.) Harry Reid, any revenue enhancement measure needs to start in the House.

“So, they decided to make the user fee an additional amendment to the RIVER Act (Reinvesting In Vital Economic Rivers and Waterways Act of 2013,S.601). That was introduced by Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey with new co-sponsors Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts. The original co-sponsors of the RIVER Act were Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and Minnesota Sen. Al Franken. That measure was brought to the Senate floor by Casey just as a way, not to formally introduce it, but to express support and show that it is something that they feel should be considered in the House.”

One thing that has been played up by some Southern lawmakers is an amendment regarding an EPA fuel spill prevention that was part of the WRDA. Was that just tacked on?

“We didn’t really have anything to do with that. Most of the amendments added to the bill have some sort of relevance to water resources or water projects. But we weren’t involved in any of those.”

Some legislators also claimed that this bill could mean 500,000 jobs. Could you comment on that?

“Yes, (California) Sen. Barbara Boxer, who is the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, works collaboratively with (Louisiana) Sen. David Vitter, ranking member. In all her statements, she said that while this is a water resources reauthorization and there are a lot of projects that will help the nation’s infrastructure, this is really a jobs bill. And she said the bill would sustain, or create, or both, of about 500,000 jobs.”

Funds, projects, Panama

Under this bill, how much money will actually be available to deal with waterways infrastructure for the Corps of Engineers and government agencies?

“In terms of lock and dam infrastructure, the thing that came out of the bill that is a big win for the nation is the fact that they voted to remove the long-delayed and over-budget Olmsted project from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF). Currently, that project, which started in 1988 as a $775 million project, has really gone out of control in cost and delays. That project has now cost $3.2 billion and won’t be finished until around 2020 to 2024.

“For users who pay for modernization of the (waterways) system – the barge and towing companies paying into the IWTF (50 percent towards construction and 50 percent towards major rehabilitation matched by the federal government) – the Olmsted overruns don’t allow us to do anything else except to fund that one challenging project. By taking that out of the trust fund, it will free up about $750 million to go on and complete other critical priority navigation projects. That’s absolutely important.”

What about the House version of this bill and what are you expecting in terms of movement on that?

“The companion bill to the Senate’s RIVER Act in the House is WAVE 4. It currently has bipartisan support with about 28 co-sponsors from across the nation.
“We’ve heard everything from a draft bill being prepared for this summer – June or July – to this fall. But it’s more likely there will be action in the early fall.

“We’re enthusiastic about the potential for the House bill. Even if the House decides to create its own bill, I think it will look at the strong passage of WRDA in the Senate and the elements included. We hope the House will also add in the user-fee component (discussed earlier).”

Was there any element regarding levee building/maintenance in the WRDA?

“Everyone had an interest – harbor maintenance, dredging, ports – all of that gets wrapped into the reauthorization. But we weren’t focused on the levees. Anything beyond the locks and dams we were particularly interested in was the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund management and how dredging will be done on our vital channels. If we have good lock and dam infrastructure but don’t have properly dredged channels to get products to the export market, half the equation is lost.”

In the earlier interview, you mentioned a 20-cents-per-gallon fuel tax for waterways users. Does that still hold after the Senate bill?

“That is part of the user fee increase. We’re calling for a 26-cent to 29-cent per gallon. Barge and tow operators now pay 20 cents. In the House version, they’d pay between 26 and 29 cents, based on the volume of cargo moved annually. So, one year the cost could be 26 cents and the next 29 cents.

“The Senate version calls for the full 29 cents per gallon. Again, that wasn’t introduced as it has to come from the House.

“Stakeholders and shippers are very happy to pay that increase. While the federalization of Olmsted is very helpful in giving some relief to the trust fund, we also need additional revenue and investment in the system. That’s why we’re doing our part to step up.

“Sometimes there are taxes or user fees that are put on lots of consumers but benefit only a very few. In this case, it’s just the opposite. There are only about 300 users that pay into that trust fund but it benefits so many others – those using hydropower, recreational boating and fishing, passenger vessels, all the waterfront property development, municipal water supplies. That’s worth noting.”

In March, besides the Olmsted project, you mentioned the waterways in the Pittsburgh region as being desperately in need of improvement. Does the Senate bill tackle that?

“Yes. There is a list of 25 priority projects put together by the Inland Waterways Users Board – a group of industry operators, executives and the Corps of Engineers.

“There are main projects that have been authorized and appropriated but not fully and efficiently funded and not about to be finished soon.

“They look at those projects and figure out cost/benefit ratios and come up with the list. First on that list is the Olmsted lock and dam project. In second place is a set of projects in the lower Monongahela River locks and dams near Pittsburgh. Third place is in Kentucky, a lock addition on the Tennessee (River) along with the Chickamauga lock. Then, there’s the Emsworth and Markland lock and dam rehabilitation on the Ohio River.

“Some of the most aged locks and dams are in the Pittsburgh region and they’d benefit if the House passes the bill.”

When the Senate passed WRDA, there were many agriculture groups that came out backing the measure.

“That wasn’t a surprise. Waterways Council is comprised of a broad coalition of groups that depend on a reliable waterways system. As part of our membership we have the barge and towing operators, the shipping companies like Bunge and ADM, Cargill and petroleum producers. Manufacturers also have provided great support along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the labor union community.

“There are also many state and national agricultural groups – corn, soybeans and others. They all came out to support the measure because they know there’s a direct connection to their ability to exports products in the most cost-competitive manner.”

Did preparing for the Panama Canal expansion come up in any of the Senate discussions?

“It did come up on the floor during debate.

“It remains to be seen what kind of benefits we may get from the Panama Canal expansion. Some expect to see a great increase in traffic and cargo in inland waterways as a result. Others are more skeptical and think it’s being hyped a bit.

“However, lawmakers seem to understand that if we know the expansion is coming and we do nothing (it could be dropping the ball). The potential for growing exports and helping our nation economically is there in the background. I think that helped push the timing on this bill.”

Anything else?

“I urge your readers to get in touch with their House legislators and urge the passage of (WAVE4) and push lock and dam infrastructure since it’s so important for the nation.”