A House-Senate agreement on a new water resources bill provides an $8.2 billion boost to U.S. ports and waterways.
The final version of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) was being circulated for committee members' signatures this week, and the process should be completed by the week of May 21, setting the stage for final votes in both chambers.
Despite overwhelming support, talks had slowed down during conference negotiations. It has been seven years since Congress passed a bill that authorizes the Corps' participation in water conservation and development infrastructure projects throughout the country. WRDA streamlines waterway projects, expedite environmental review processes and allow for greater private contributions to infrastructure repairs.
The WRDA agreement would increase the amount of funds drawn from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) for maintenance dredging of federal navigation channels and to provide equity for ports nationwide. It also includes a set-aside for underserved ports.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated that America's busiest ports operate at their full capacity less than 35% of the time due, in part, to funding for HMTF being diverted to offset the costs of other unrelated government expenditures.
The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund was created by Congress in 1986 to provide funding for harbor and channel dredging. Only half of the funds deposited into the HMTF are actually utilized for harbor and channel dredging. The rest has been repeatedly appropriated by Congress for other, unrelated expenditures. The WRDA conference report increases each year the amount of funding generated by the tax for harbor maintenance activities. By the year 2025, 100% of the funds generated by the tax will be utilized for harbor maintenance and dredging.
This will provide ports like the Mississippi Gulf port region – which accounts for 58% of soybean exports and 67% of corn exports – with necessary funds to ensure the shipping channel is adequately dredged. This will become increasingly important to maintain the ability to handle the deep channel vessels that will go on to the Panama Canal.
The WRDA compromise also includes an amendment that bars the Corps from charging an unprecedented fee for using water from Missouri River reservoirs. The States' Water Rights Act states that charging fees for “surplus water” would violate a state's right to the waters that naturally flow through its boundaries, as recognized by the federal government.
Another amendment to the bill sponsored by Sen. Thad Cochran (R., Miss.) allows a non-federal interest to receive bankable credit if it carries out operation and maintenance responsibilities for a federal navigation project. That credit could then be applied to future construction costs associated with related projects. This provision gives ports greater flexibility to deepen their channels.
WRDA includes authorization for construction of the Fargo, N.D.-Moorhead, Minn., flood protection project, Sen. John Hoeven (R., N.D.) said. Because of the scale and expense of the plan, federal funding will need to be appropriated each year on an ongoing basis to cover the cost, which will be shared by the local, state and federal governments.
The total cost of the Fargo-Moorhead Diversion project is roughly $1.8 billion, with the federal government assuming $800 million, or 45%. The non-federal share will be split three ways: Minnesota will assume $100 million, and the state of North Dakota and local government will assume the balance at $450 million each.
Overall, WRDA also restructures the inland waterway system to improve project delivery, lower costs and improve project management.
The bill deauthorizes $18 billion of old, inactive projects that were authorized prior to WRDA 2007. It also sunsets new authorizations to prevent future project backlogs.
For example, the report directs the federal government to assume more responsibility for the Olmstead Lock and Dam project on the Ohio River near the confluence with the Mississippi River. It now runs at a 400% cost overrun. WRDA increases the federal funding responsibility from 50% to 85% (approximately $80 million to $136 million each year). The barge company portion will decrease from 50% to 15%. A summary from the Soybean Transportation Coalition explained this will free up approximately $56 million per year to be utilized for other needed projects on the inland waterway system.
Mike Steenhoek, STC executive director, said he doesn’t anticipate any roadblocks in the conference agreement from passing by the full House and Senate and subsequently signed by the President.
“A WRDA bill provides authorization, or a blueprint, for how the system will be enhanced. It becomes the strategy for the inland waterway system,” Steenhoek said. “The second step, the appropriations step, has historically been more contentious since that is when actual funds are allocated to those projects and activities authorized by WRDA. It’s essential to have a WRDA bill passed so that we can proceed to the appropriations step. We are hopeful that the appropriations process will be consistent with the recommendations prescribed in the WRDA conference report.”