Industry draws Senate attention to waterways plight
The nation's inland waterways and Great Lakes shipping industry drew the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee's attention on Wednesday to the deteriorating condition of the inland waterways' locks and dams and silting harbors.
The committee held its hearing, (rescheduled from Sept. 30) on Capitol Hill regarding the development of the next comprehensive Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). The last WRDA legislation to pass the Congress was in 2007.
The American Society of Civil Engineers in its 2009 Report Card of America's Infrastructure gave the nation's 12,000 miles of inland waterways a grade of D-, highlighting the fact that the average age of federally owned or operated locks is 60 years old, well pass the planned design life of 50 years.
Breakdowns in the lock and dam system could have severe consequences for the nation's economy. The Army Corps of Engineers, manager and caretaker of the inland waterways system, estimates that more than 625 million tons, valued at $70 billion, of liquid and bulk commodities, including grains, coal, metals, cement, sand and gravel, chemicals and petroleum, pass through the inland waterway system each year. More than half of the country's grain and oilseed exports rely on the river system for transport to ports for loading onto deep-sea vessels. Barges also move about 20 percent of the coal needed by power plants.
'What's at stake if we turn our back on our waterways?' testified Matt Woodruff, director of government affairs for Kirby Corp., and a board member of industry lobby Waterways Council. 'If we're prepared to turn off the lights in portions of America, stop feeding the world, cripple our manufacturing base and deprive consumers of essential goods and services, we can stop worrying about the waterways.'
Woodruff pointed up the Inland Waterways Capital Development Plan, a package of recommendations jointly developed by the industry and Corps to improve the inland navigation system and its infrastructure over the next 20 years.
The plan, which has the backing of more than 200 industry associations and companies, includes:
' A national prioritized list of navigation projects based on objective criteria such as economic benefit and project condition.
' A path forward to more efficiently complete 25 navigation projects in six years rather than just six projects under the current business model, better utilize taxpayer money, and complete projects on time and on budget.
' Standardization and design centers.
' Job creation and allowance for increasing exports to market.
'While we now have invested the surplus in the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, that has resulted in too few finished projects,' Woodruff said. 'And all of this comes in the face of an unprecedented economic crisis that is severely stressing our waterway industry and the nation.'
Jim Weakley, president of the Lake Carriers' Association, and who also represented the Great Lakes Maritime Task Force and Realize America's Maritime Promise coalition before the committee, told the senators 'Nature is filling our ports with sediment faster than man is removing it.'
It's estimated that the tributaries to the Great Lakes naturally deposit more than 3.3 million cubic yards of sediment per year.
The lack of Great Lakes harbor dredging forces vessel operators to 'light load,' meaning that for every inch of draft lost, a vessel must forfeit as much as 270 tons of onboard cargo.
'For each inch silted in, American lakers leave 8,000 tons of Minnesota ore in Duluth, enough to manufacture 6,000 cars,' Weakley noted. 'We leave enough Montana and Wyoming coal behind to produce three hours of Detroit's electricity, or abandon enough stone for 24 homes.'
Weakley urged the Senate committee to pass WRDA and incorporate the Harbor Maintenance Act, as outlined in bill S. 3213.
'Modeled after legislative fixes for air and highway trust funds, (S. 3213) balances annual (Harbor Maintenance Trust) Fund revenues and expenditures,' he said. 'Basing future expenditures on future revenues, the bill doesn't 'score' or violate the 'pay-as-you-go' rule. Fewer 'earmarks' for ports currently abandoned by the administration should be required in future budgets.'
Sen. Barbara Boxer, the committee's chairman, told the industry representatives, 'increasing investment in harbor maintenance should be a focus of the next WRDA bill.' ' Chris Gillis