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Congress tries to keep rivers open

DANIEL LOOKER 05/07/2013 @ 5:37pm Business Editor

If you buy fertilizer or sell grain shipped on the Mississippi or Ohio River, you'll be glad to know that on Tuesday the Senate began to consider a new version of the Water Resources Development Act of 2013, or WRDA.

It's authorizing legislation for river transportation and harbor maintenance programs run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Ag groups including the American Farm Bureau Federation are pushing for its passage.

Some $20 billion worth of agricultural products moved on inland waterways last year, said Andrew Walmsley, Farm Bureau's transportation specialist. Fertilizer also moves upstream to the Midwest.

"Whether it's imports reaching domestic markets or reaching international markets, agriculture is very dependent on our ports and inland waterways," he said.

More than half of the locks on central U.S. river systems have surpassed their 50-year expected life, Walmsley told Agriculture.com Tuesday. And of 257 locks in the river systems, nearly half are considered functionally obsolete.

"That's the concern. There could be a failure at any time," he said.

The new WRDA would attempt to shore up the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, whose year-end balance has dropped from $412.6 million at the end of 2002 to $44.8 million at the end of 2012. Barge companies and other users of the system are willing to pay higher fuel taxes to help fund repairs. And a lock and dam construction project on the Ohio River at Olmsted, Illinois, that is plagued with cost overruns would be shifted from the Trust Fund to the federal government's general fund.

Walmsley said he's optimistic that the Senate will pass WRDA, which had unanimous, bipartisan support in the Committee on Public Works and the Environment.  

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure has a similar bill that may take longer, Walmsley said, partly because only 47% of House members were around when the last WRDA was passed in 2007.

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