Lawmakers come together to update ailing infrastructure
By Sara Wyant
In rare acts of bipartisanship, both the House and Senate overwhelmingly recently approved legislation that will finally allow much-needed repairs to locks, dams, ports and waterways. In the process, they also addressed a few other issues, like storage tank regulations.
But it wasn’t easy and took what seemed like an endless amount of time. The last reauthorization of the Water Resources and Reform Development Act was in 2007—back when earmarks for pet projects helped lift big infrastructure bills like this.
The Senate passed the package by a huge margin, 91-7, just two days after the House of Representatives passed the $12.3 billion package with a vote of 412-4. President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill.
“I am so proud of the overwhelming bipartisan vote in both the Senate and the House to pass this strong water infrastructure bill today,” noted Barbara Boxer, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.
“Our bill invests in vital water infrastructure that protects communities from flooding, maintains navigation routes for commerce and the movement of goods, restores vital ecosystems and provides a boost to our economy by creating jobs,” noted the California Democrat.
Ranking member David Vitter, R-LA, said the measure is “easily one of the most important bills we’ll pass this year.”
The bill contains several key provisions important to agriculture, including one that changes the funding mix for completing the long-delayed and over-budget Olmstead lock-and-dam project on the Ohio River.
Under the new bill, the federal government would assume 85 percent of the cost of completing the project, with funds from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (comprising barge diesel fuel user fees) used to finance the remaining 15 percent. This change in the former 50:50 cost-share formula will free up approximately $56 million a year in industry-paid user fees to fund much-needed restoration to dilapidated locks on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois River System.
Several different interest groups that worked on advancing the WRRDA package added their support.
“Senate passage of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act puts America’s inland waterways and port infrastructure on a solid and sustainable foundation to contribute to U.S. economic growth, jobs and global competitiveness for generations to come,” noted American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman.
American Soybean Association President Ray Gaesser welcomed passage of the bill. He noted that the conference report included ASA-supported provisions that will free up significant funding within the Inland Waterways Trust Fund for additional waterways infrastructure projects; increase the level of Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund dollars that will be spent on port maintenance and dredging; streamline the Army Corps of Engineers’ project review process; increase Corps flexibility to maintain navigation during low water events; and promote the use of alternative financing and public-private partnerships to fund waterways infrastructure.
The National Corn Growers Association urged the president to sign the final reauthorization bill into law and thus improve the reliability and efficiency of the U.S. inland waterways system.
“We must improve our infrastructure, and we must do it now. Our locks and dams transport our cargoes today but were built in the 1920s and 1930s to accommodate far smaller loads and far less river traffic. For farmers in particular, it is crucial as more than 60 percent of the nation’s grain exports are transported by barge,” said NCBA President Martin Barbre.
The nation’s towboat operators, shippers, and labor, port, conservation and agriculture stakeholder members of Waterways Council, Inc. applauded today’s passage of WRRDA.
“This bill—and, we hope, law—will create American jobs, increase U.S. exports, keep our nation competitive in world markets, and enhance the reliability of the nation’s waterways transportation mode and critical supply chain link,” said Matt Woodruff, WCI chairman. “Today, Congress got it done and voted to keep America moving!”
The National Grain and Feed Association pointed to reforms to the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund that will make more money available for port-dredging activities, as well as numerous key reforms to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ operations designed to streamline its project-delivery process and promote fiscal responsibility.
The NGFA said these improvements will help maintain U.S. agricultural competitiveness in world markets and ensure U.S. farmers receive needed crop inputs to produce grains, oilseeds and other agricultural commodities.
Members of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association applauded a provision in the bill that will ease the burden of the EPA’s Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasure rule.
The current EPA SPCC rule for farms requires compliance if an operation has 1,320 gallons, or more, of aboveground fuel storage and allows self-certification up to 10,000 gallons. This not only includes fuel storage but requires aboveground feed storage to be included in the total if it meets the broad definition of “oil” which includes the base of many liquid cattle feeds.
“Cattlemen and women have been waiting too long for a permanent fix to the SPCC rule. Thanks to the efforts of Senators Inhofe and Pryor and Representative Crawford, this provision will ease the burden of this rule across the nation for many farmers and ranchers,” said Bob McCan, NCBA president and Victoria, Texas, cattleman.
Under the provision in the WRRDA legislation, the aggregate aboveground fuel exemption limit is raised to 6,000 gallons for operations with no history of spills and no single tank with a capacity of 10,000 gallons or more from having to develop a plan.
The provision will require a self-certified plan for operations that have aggregate aboveground fuel storage above 6,000 and below 20,000 gallons with no history of spills and no single tank capacity of 10,000 gallons or more. Moreover, the legislation exempts fuel tanks with a capacity of 1,000 gallons or less and all tanks that hold animal feed ingredients from the aggregate calculations.
Those operations that do not meet these exemptions will require a Spill Containment Plan, certified by a professional engineer.
Still, there were several critics of bill, including Sen. Jeff Flake, R-AZ, and conservative lobbying groups like Heritage Action.
“No doubt this reform-minded WRRDA is a step in the right direction,” noted Flake. But he described several concerns regarding the way projects will be authorized—even though the bill contains no earmarks designating specific projects.
“Just because it doesn’t have earmarks doesn’t mean it’s a good process for taxpayers,” Flake said on the Senate floor.
Editor’s note: Agri-Pulse Editor Sara Wyant can be reached at www.agri-pulse.com.