What Could WRDA Mean to U.S. Waterways and Infrastructure?

September 30, 2016 11:28 AM

Government checks will not bounce today and government workers must still show-up to work. That's after Congress approves a spending bill to keep the government operating through December 9.

The current funding was set to expire at midnight tonight. The bill also includes funding to battle the Zika virus and it provides $500 million for flood recovery in Louisiana.

A weeklong impasse came to an end when lawmakers agreed to provide federal assistance for residents of Flint, Michigan as a separate piece of legislation. That city has been struggling with lead contamination in their drinking water for more than a year.

The Flint Water funding is included in the Water Resources Development Act- Otherwise known as WRDA. WRDA helps pay for repairs to locks and dams and dredging in deep-water ports. The House and Senate have approved their versions of the bill- and differences must be worked out in a Conference Committee.

We talk about the need for WRDA funding along our nation's waterways.

WRDA is just one legislative step in getting money to the nation's waterways. The Appropriations Bill is what lays out the funding. Since Congress only passed a short-term Spending Bill, industry leaders say we may not have an actual dollar amount until after the election.

There's a final shove to move barge traffic through Lock and Dam 11 in Dubuque, Iowa before the river freezes.

"There's usually a little bit of a lull. Then, you get your final push," says U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lock and Dam Number 11 Lockmaster, Gary Kilburg.

This year has already been one of the busiest when it comes to moving grain.

"We've moved more almost up to September this year than we did all of last year," says Kilburg.

The river is a key cog in the shipment of grain, especially with a growing number of bushels this harvest. That’s making replacing and repairing infrastructure on the waterways system vital.

“Now we’re back to growing such large crops. We’re need every avenue available to utilize our corn to move our corn inland or out of the country. The main way to get it out of the country is through the Mississippi River and the way we’re going to do that in the future is getting these locks and dams up to speed and current. That’s so we can compete on the world’s stage,” says Iowa Corn Growers Association member, Tim Burrack.

Roughly $405 Million dollars was allocated for the Waterways during Fiscal Year ’16. While it sounds like a large chunk of cash, farm groups say we need more to stay competitive.

“We’ve received more funding with WRDA but not enough. We need to put pressure on as farmers and consumers on legislatures on the importance of the river, needs of the river and {on the economics} of the river. We have a lock and dam system that’s 80 years old. A lot of them haven’t had a major renovation ever.  I think the Corps does a good job with the limited amount of funds they have for work,” says Iowa Corn Growers Association Chairman, Bob Hemesath.

Some Locks and Dams are in critical condition, like the LaGrange Lock and Dam on the Illinois River shown in this documentary by the United Soybean Board and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Kilburg says Lock and Dam Number 11 in Dubuque, Iowa went through a major facelift in the 2000s. Yet, he hopes to get some items replaced like these miter gates.

“If one of these miter gates goes down for damage, repair or whatever, we can no longer lock. They’re critical to the lock system,” says Kilburg.

Kilburg says some small projects also need attention like a new crane.

“In Congress’ picture, a crane is a small thing. To us, it’s a big thing,” says Kilburg.

It’s a waterway system that has to work so a lot of barges and bushels aren’t frozen on the nation’s cheapest mode of transportation.

The Inland Waterways Tax also helps with funding. It’s the tax diesel fuel commercial operators pay to help underwrite the costs of new lock and dam construction and rehabilitation. It increased from 20 to 29 cents per gallon in 2015. These funds are matched by the Federal Treasury.

Some Lawmakers are upset that money for Louisiana flood recovery has been approved for a storm that hit just last month but residents in Flint must still wait for money for water problems that have existed for more than a year. 

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