Agriculture still watching (and waiting for) WRDA

New research by the University of Tennessee quantifies what many in agriculture have known for years; failure of our aging river locks and dams along the Mississippi River and its tributaries would be ruinous with billions of dollars in lost jobs and reduced economic activity.

Recently, USDA released estimates of the economic implications to the agriculture sector should a disruption occur at either Lock & Dam 25 on the Upper Mississippi or La Grange Lock & Dam on the Illinois River waterway. The locations were selected because they are representative of the lock system as a whole but also because they occupy key locations on the river system.

“These are both 600 foot locks even though modern tows are 1,200 feet-long. They are also at the lower reaches of the waterways,” said Ken Hartman, chair of the National Corn Growers Association’s Market Access Action Team. “The southbound traffic here already contributes to long delays because of the lock size. But a disruption of any length of time related to their deteriorating condition would be catastrophic for family farmers who are increasingly dependent on exports and trade.”

Among several important findings, the report concludes a L&D 25 closure could result in a loss of more than 7,000 jobs, $1.3 billion of labor income and about $2.4 billion of economic activity (total industry output) annually. Similarly, closing La Grange Lock & Dam could result in a reduction of 5,500 jobs, $900 million of labor income and $1.8 billion of economic activity annually.

“A majority of these locks were built in the 1930s and have surpassed their designed lifespan,” Hartman said. “With growing demand being made on the system upgrading the navigational efficiency of these waterways is a priority for corn farmers and NCGA, especially when most of our prospective customers are now overseas.”

A total of 36 locks and dams, 28 on the Upper Mississippi River, are maintained at a nine-foot depth navigation channel for barge transportation.

In terms of legislation addressing this long-term, challenging issue, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 5303, the Water Resources and Development Act of 2016 in late September with a vote of 399-25. The U.S. Senate passed S. 2848, the Water Resources Development Act earlier in the same month.

“Inland waterways are a central part of our country’s transportation infrastructure, helping farmers and ranchers to get their products to market quickly and safely,” said Brent Hostetler, NCGA Production and Stewardship Action Team Chair, a farmer from Plain City. “The Water Resources Development Act is an important step forward in our efforts to maintain and modernize our inland waterways infrastructure.”

The bill provides only minor policy tweaks and is focused on clearing the backlog of projects at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Additionally, S. 2848 will provide relief from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure (SPCC) regulations by exempting farms with up to 2,000 gallons of storage capacity and fully exempts animal feed.

Congressman Bob Gibbs of Ohio, chairs the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, offered leadership and continued support for the inland waterways system in House version of the bill.

The next step for WRDA 2016 is a conference of the House and Senate bills, with a potential final bill ready to be signed by the President by the end of the year.

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