AMERICA'S waterways are the lowest-cost method of transporting goods — especially agricultural products — yet as a nation, the U.S. has failed to invest in essential upgrades to the river infrastructure that are necessary for agriculture to remain a serious global competitor.
In 2012, $128 billion of agricultural products were exported from the U.S., with 95% passing through harbors, ports and waterways. The U.S. has 241 locks and dams, 57% of which are 50 years old or more. A breakdown of this aging infrastructure could not only stop the delivery of agricultural products but, ultimately, negatively affect the U.S. economy.
"When America's infrastructure breaks down, American agriculture stops dead in its tracks," said Royce Wilken, president of the American River Transportation Co., a subsidiary of Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). "As important as this is to our economy, these markets are at risk."
For more than two decades, members of the agriculture community have formed a coalition with other industries to encourage Congress to invest in this valuable infrastructure.
Wilken described it as "a strong coalition of folks that recognize the importance of infrastructure to agriculture along the third coast we call the Mississippi River."
At a press conference during the 2013 Farm Progress Show, the Illinois Farm Bureau, in conjunction with the American Farm Bureau Federation, ADM, Illinois Corn Growers Assn. and Carpenters' District Council of Greater St. Louis, urged Congress to act on and appropriate funding for the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).
"It's time for Congress to act on this important legislation," said Phillip Nelson, Illinois Farm Bureau president. "Just like interstate highways or railways, America's river system is extremely important in moving commerce both within the country and to other countries around the world."
Congress has passed WRDA legislation in the past, but the approval is necessary to appropriate the funding necessary to upgrade aging locks and dams and complete other important maintenance projects like dredging.
In May, the Senate approved its version of the waterway bill, but the House, which claims to have reached a bipartisan agreement, plans to take action after its summer break (Feedstuffs, Aug. 19).
The budget still remains the largest challenge to WRDA authorization. In order to replenish the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, the agriculture industry and barge operators support a 6 cents/gal. increase in diesel fuel user fees that's included in the Senate version.
Members of the coalition recognized the budget constraints and worked with Reps. Rodney Davis (R., Ill.) and Cheri Bustos (D., Ill.) and Sens. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) and Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) to introduce H.R. 1153, The Water Infrastructure Now Public-Private Partnership Act, to expedite outstanding Army Corps of Engineers projects — currently estimated at $60 billion — that will remain idle without appropriate investment.
This pilot program would authorize innovative new agreements to decentralize the planning, design and construction processes in an effort to speed up project delivery while maintaining safety and also would allow private funds to match government funding.
As a whole, the value of the river system is often overlooked. This infrastructure is used not just to export agricultural products but also to import essential goods like fertilizer, cement, salt and aviation fuel. For every ton the U.S. exports, a half-ton of products are imported in backhaul.
If a lock and dam were forced to shut down due to breakage, the cost to transport the goods by another mode would increase dramatically, Wilken warned. As a result, the cost would be passed on to the consumer and eventually would out-price the product in the global marketplace. In addition, efficient river transportation of goods can help relieve growing congestion on U.S. highways.