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Barging ahead with a water bill (the WRRDA)

DANIEL LOOKER 10/24/2013 @ 5:28pm Business Editor

An amazing thing happened in Washington Wednesday evening. The House of Representatives passed a bill. It wasn't just bipartisan. It was nearly unanimous.

By a vote of 417 to 3, the House approved the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2013. You can think of this as the Farm Bill for the nation's rivers and ports. It authorizes programs run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, not the USDA. It's supposed to be passed every two years, but the last one dates to 2007. WRRDA had the support of every major farm group representing the commodities that travel by barge through locks maintained by the Corps as well as backing from the American Farm Bureau Federation and National Farmers Union.

Tadd Nicholson, executive director of the Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association, was almost ecstatic Thursday.

"I've been working on this for 10 years," he told Agriculture.com. "This is a good one, a good day."

All farm groups lobbied for it, he said. "The entire group pulled together on this one."

The Senate passed a similar bill in May, and Nicholson and others are optimistic that a conference committee will iron out differences and send a bill to President Barack Obama to be signed before the end of the year.

Nicholson said he's glad that the chairman of the Water Resources and Environment subcommittee, Bob Gibbs, is from Ohio and understands the importance of waterways to the nation's commerce.

"Congressman Gibbs' leadership was a key component in helping move WRRDA through the House, and we applaud his effort," Nicholson's group said in a statement released Thursday.

The water transportation bill has been a top goal of Farm Bureau as well and the group's president, Bob Stallman, praised the House vote Thursday.

"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," Stallman said in a statement. "More than 60% of grain grown by U.S. farmers for export is transported via inland waterways and 95% of farm exports and imports move through U.S. harbors."

The bill has the potential to improve the way money is spent on ports and waterways.

It will streamline environmental reviews required for new projects. It also would spend user fees more efficiently.

Currently, only half of the import fees collected through the Harbor Maintenance Tax go to pay for dredging and harbor maintenance. Inland shippers also pay into the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which has been sinking since the turn of the 21st century, to about a tenth of the level it was in 2002. Cost overruns of one project, the Olmsted Locks and Dam on the Ohio River, have been draining that fund.

To resolve those issues, both bills would shift more of the Harbor Maintenance Tax to support ports, instead of diverting half of it to other federal spending. And they both shift support for the Olmsted project out of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund to the federal government, freeing up more for other, less expensive lock and dam repairs.

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