Agricultural groups that weighed in offered their resounding support for the House passage of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act by the House of Representatives on Wednesday. The bill garnered a 417-3 vote that should lead to conference talks with the Senate soon.
Thus, for farmer priorities, the waterway and ports infrastructure bill will likely be in conference talks at effectively the same time as farm-bill conference talks that already are set to start next week.
The American Farm Bureau Federation stated the group was "extremely pleased" with passage of the bill.
“Having an efficient and reliable inland waterway system linked to competitive ports is vital to America’s ability to provide affordable farm products domestically and to compete internationally. More than 60 percent of grain grown by U.S. farmers for export is transported via inland waterways and 95 percent of farm exports and imports move through U.S. harbors," said AFBF President Bob Stallman. "New projects for flood protection, port improvements and upgrades to the nation’s aging locks and dams infrastructure authorized under WRRDA are long overdue."
The National Grain and Feed Association said WRRDA contains reforms to streamline the Corps' process for approving projects to renovate and replace deteriorating locks and dams. NGFA also highlighted that "the upper Mississippi and Illinois River System typically is used to transport about 60 percent of U.S. grain and oilseed exports each year, as well as for imports of fertilizer, other crop inputs and industrial products. These exports and other navigation activity support more than 400,000 jobs, including 90,000 high-paying manufacturing jobs. Meanwhile, the Columbia and Snake River System in the Pacific Northwest is a crucial river highway for supplying U.S. wheat, as well as corn, soybeans and other agricultural products, to customers in Pacific Rim countries," the group stated.
"House passage represents an important step in securing final congressional approval of legislation that would enhance America's inland waterways infrastructure - most of which was constructed in the 1930s with a projected 50-year lifespan," said NGFA President Randy Gordon. "We and other stakeholders will continue to pursue a legislative vehicle that would increase the barge diesel fuel user fee that the industry itself is willing to pay to secure the cost-share funding needed to actually construct and renovate the locks on the inland waterway system that would be authorized under the waterways legislation, which is essential to the future competitiveness of U.S. agriculture."
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The Illinois Corn Growers Association noted the WRRDA bill would take away some of the costs of the long-overrun Olmsted Locks and Dam project on the Ohio River. Under the House bill, the federal government would sustain 75 percent of the costs to finish Olmsted, with only 25 percent coming from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. (The Senate bill would offset all of the costs)
"The Olmsted Lock and Dam modernization project is significantly over budget. To continue pulling 50 percent of the funds from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund is to punish lock and dam users for poor time and money management on behalf of the Army Corps of Engineers and its team. A move to alter the funding percentages is a positive one for Illinois farmers and the barge industry," said Paul Taylor, ICGA President.
ICGA also added pointed to other key provisions in the House bill, notably:
Limiting the Corps of Engineers feasibility studies to three years and $3 million - currently these studies have no time limit or budgetary cap.
Requiring District, Division, and Headquarters personnel to concurrently conduct reviews of a feasibility study, eliminating the current practice of sequential reviews.
Streamlines environmental reviews by naming a lead and requiring concurrent reviews.
The American Soybean Association noted the 417-3 vote reflects that water-infrastructure projects enjoy broad bipartisan support in Congress. ASA also called for expedited conference talks to get the bill completed by the end of the year.
“Soybeans are the nation’s leading farm export, and each bushel we export depends on our waterways infrastructure, whether that’s in the form of a river channel, a lock and dam, or a port,” added Murphy. “Unfortunately, in recent years, each of those elements has begun to suffer due to lack of upkeep and investment, and this bill takes a great step to reversing that trend,” said ASA President Danny Murphy, a soybean farmer from Canton, Miss.
ASA also stated that the Senate version includes an amendment supported by ASA that would exempt small farms that store oil in aboveground tanks from federal oil spill regulations. The amendment would set storage tank thresholds below which agricultural operations would be excluded from U.S. EPA's Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure Rule (SPCC).
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