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Inside Washington

Congress approves water resources bill

TAGS: Policy
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WRDA bill modernizes and rehabilitates waterways infrastructure important to agriculture.

Ag interests received welcomed news with the passage of the Water Resources Development Act of 2020, which was included in the year-end funding bill. The nation’s inland waterways system is critical to the U.S. agriculture industry and economy overall, and this legislation promises to modernize and rehabilitate the system, while helping to significantly reduce the backlog of authorized projects.

Bobby Frederick, National Grain and Feed Association’s vice president of legislative affairs and public policy says, “Since 2014, each Congress has passed a WRDA into law, and NGFA has viewed each bill as an opportunity to enhance U.S. inland waterways and port infrastructure. WRDA 2020 ensures continued investment in U.S. waterways infrastructure, helps bring U.S. waterways infrastructure into the 21st century and will help maintain American agriculture’s competitive transportation advantage against other countries.”

Most significantly, the WRDA 2020 bill amends the cost-share formula for inland waterway projects for the next decade to provide that 65% of the funding be derived from taxpayer revenues and 35% from barge diesel fuel tax user fees deposited in the Inland Waterway Trust Fund.  Currently, the funding formula is split 50:50. The trust fund consists of revenues generated by barge fuel taxes assessed against commercial users of the inland waterways.  

This cost share modification will specifically help the modernization of locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi River to move forward at a faster rate as they start the construction phase of the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program. It is estimated that the change in the funding formula will result in an additional $100 million annually being available for lock-and-dam renovation, including long-overdue rehabilitation of the locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Waterway.  “It is well known that the majority of these locks and dams have outlived their 50-year design life and changing the cost-share is one prudent way to address this problem and bring U.S. waterways infrastructure into the 21st century more quickly,” says Frederick. 

The bill also would provide access to the existing balance of funds within the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund over a 10-year period to facilitate port-dredging activities. Currently, around $10 billion has been collected and deposited into the fund but has gone unspent for its intended purpose. Allowing increased use of the HMTF corrects “the fiscal disservice” to those that pay the 0.125% ad valorem tax based upon the value of cargo imports and would help restore the United States’ comparative transportation advantage, NGFA notes. 

John Bode, president and CEO of the Corn Refiners Association says CRA is particularly pleased the legislation will provide more than $1 billion in additional construction funds over 10 years to our critical inland waterways system. “WRDA is a signature achievement of tremendous importance to maintaining global competitiveness of American agriculture exports and the millions of American jobs those exports support,” Bode says.

“America’s corn farmers need reliable means of moving their crop to customers and the inland waterways are a vital artery of transportation for our products, especially in the Midwest,” adds National Corn Growers Association President John Linder. “Continuing to invest in this system is critically important to our industry’s competitiveness.”

Flood control measures

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, worked to include a provision that would make temporary flood control structures permanent. This provision creates a new authority for the Army Corps of Engineers to review whether temporary flood control structures it has constructed should be made permanent, and allows the local cost-share for making them permanent to be waived for communities that are small, financially disadvantaged or at risk of recurring flooding.

The new authority is based off the Local Expertise is Vital for Effective Embankments Act introduced by Sens. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Kirsten Gilibrand, D-N.Y. Grassley was an original cosponsor.

In April 2019, Grassley along with Sens. Ernst, Gilibrand, and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., participated in a field hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in southwest Iowa in which local stakeholders including Mayor Crain of Hamburg, Iowa, described the struggles communities have in keeping levee improvements made in face of flooding permanent.

In 2011, the Corps raised the Ditch 6 levee by about eight feet to help protect the town against flood waters. This levee held the floodwaters back, but unfortunately, Corps policy told them they had to take down the additional protection or rebuild it to Corps specifications. Hamburg was unable to come up with the additional funds to rebuild the levee so they were forced to take it down. The same levee was overrun last year, contributing to the destructive flooding that left two-thirds of Hamburg under water.

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