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Waterways need more investment to stay competitive, USDA says

Dec 2, 2019 02:41 PM
Construction workers excavate in the cofferdam at the Chickamauga Lock Replacement Project on the Tennessee River in December 2017. Delays in structural work and channel maintenance on inland waterways pose a threat to U.S. competitiveness in global agricultural markets, according to the USDA.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo

Construction workers excavate in the cofferdam at the Chickamauga Lock Replacement Project on the Tennessee River in December 2017. Delays in structural work and channel maintenance on inland waterways pose a threat to U.S. competitiveness in global agricultural markets, according to the USDA.

The nation has to invest more heavily in locks, dams and river dredging, and aging waterways infrastructure must be restored to full capacity to allow growth in traffic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said in a recent study, weighing the benefits to commerce and exports.

Lock and dam performance has declined at recent investment levels. From 2000 to 2017, vessel delays increased on nine major waterways containing locks. While barge traffic has expanded, lagging structural work and channel maintenance have caused costly delays.

Importance of Inland Waterways to U.S. Agriculture,” released in August, relied on modeling to forecast investment impacts. The study compared benefits from varied levels of funding over 10- and 25-year spans.

The USDA’s study highlights how critical inland waterways are to the nation’s prosperity, said Mike Toohey, president of the Waterways Council Inc. (WCI), a Washington-based trade group. And, he added, it makes the case for expediting the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program (NESP). Getting that program funded has been a WCI priority.

“Expediting the NESP would modernize five locks on the Upper Mississippi River and two on the Illinois Waterway, making them ready for predicted grain shipments,” Toohey said. “It would also improve the health of our marine ecosystems and habitats.”

He cited language for funding pre-construction engineering and design (PED) for the program in a report accompanying the fiscal year 2020 Energy and Water Development (E&WD) bill, passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Sept. 12.

“(The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) shall allocate not less than $4,500,000 for PED of inland waterway lock and dam navigation and ecosystem restoration projects authorized by Title VIII of the Water Resources Development Act of 2007,” the Senate’s report said.

Toohey said that language must be supported in the House-Senate conference process ahead, and added, “We’re grateful the Senate has taken this first significant step to initiate the project.”

Investing in dredge work in the Lower Mississippi River — from Baton Rouge through New Orleans to Southwest Pass and into the Gulf of Mexico — would boost grain prices paid to growers and bolster land values, the USDA report said. Resulting gains in jobs and gross domestic product should more than offset project costs, according to the agency.

Increased rainfall in the Midwest in recent years has added to dredging needs, said Sean Duffy, executive director of the Big River Coalition in New Orleans. The group wants more federal funds devoted to maintaining authorized channel dimensions from the Gulf to Baton Rouge. The coalition’s “Full Funding Floats All Boats Campaign” seeks increased channel maintenance in the area of Southwest Pass in Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish.

With recent Mississippi River Basin flooding, more sediment was deposited in Southwest Pass. “This record year has tested dredging abilities,” Duffy said. “Navigation interests across the nation, along with the U.S. Army Corps’ districts, have said we need to fix the Southwest Pass problem.”

Duffy sees the E&WD bill passed by Senate Appropriations as very positive. It would allocate $525 million for a regional dredge demonstration program to show multiyear efficiencies from building deep-draft projects between Louisiana and Florida, including the Mississippi River Ship Channel.

The Army Corps’ dredge work is typically planned and funded annually project by project. Under the Senate bill, a multiyear demo program would respond to needs from storms and address routine yearly dredging.

Duffy said 2019 has been historic. “I never thought we would open the Bonnet Carre Spillway in back-to-back years, much less twice in the same year,” he said. The spillway just west of New Orleans allows floodwaters from the Mississippi River to flow into Lake Pontchartrain and then into the Gulf of Mexico.

“In FY 2019, the Corps was appropriated a record of roughly $245 million for operations and maintenance of the Mississippi River Ship Channel from Baton Rouge to the Gulf,” Duffy said. “But the channel was deficient for over seven months as the Corps had to dredge nearly triple the usual amount of sediment. The Great Flood of 2019 has been one for the books, with a record length of flood stage, record funding and record maintenance dredging.”

Strong demand for hopper dredges in recent years has hampered work on Corps projects, including efforts from Baton Rouge to the Gulf. The Big River Coalition wants hopper and cutterhead dredges to be committed and able to start early in new fiscal years.

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