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Barging ahead with a water bill (the WRRDA)

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 "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.

"You're freeing up millions of dollars that are backlogged. That's a significant change," said Andrew Walmsley, who lobbies for Farm Bureau on transportation issues.

How that's done has to be worked out yet, Walmsley told The Senate bill shifts $100 million per year into more port maintenance until, in 2020, all of the collected fees go only to ports. The House bill mandates that by 2020, 80% of the Harbor Maintenance Tax would actually go to harbors.

The Senate bill also would remove all spending on the Olmsted project from the Waterways Trust Fund, while the House bill would remove 75% of Olmsted funding from the Trust Fund.

One thing neither bill does is boost the surcharge on diesel fuel paid by barge companies, which farm groups support. A proposal in the Senate would have boosted the fee by 9 cents a gallon over the current 20 cents, but because increases in taxes must originate in the House, it was dropped. The House considered a fee of 6 cents. But it, too, was dropped.

"There hasn't been much appetite to include that in the WRRDA bill," Walmsley said. He hopes that the fee might be worked into a larger year-end tax bill.

There are also differences in the spending levels each bill would authorize, he said, with the Senate approving about $12 billion and the House, more than $8 billion.

The Obama Administration has also expressed reservations about shifting funds out of the waterways trust fund to taxpayers, said Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Association, a national group based in Ankeny, Iowa.

But, he, too, believes that some version of a Water Resources bill can become law this year. "There is a way forward with this," he said.

Steenhoek also likes measures in both bills that would allow public/private financing of some waterways projects.

One reason for the Corps' cost overruns is that its larger multiyear projects have to wait for Congress to pass annual appropriations. One approach to making the process more efficient might be to allow something like a bonding authority to add private capital to the projects, he said. Another might be to allow private businesses to operate locks, much as private companies now operate freeways financed by tolls.

"The soybean farmers can provide a service to the debate by fleshing it out further," he said.

Even with the likely passage of a new WRRDA bill (or WRDA in the Senate version) Congress will still have to figure out how to pay for removing the Olmsted project from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, Steenhoek said.

"The real challenge will be to generate either a new source of revenue or spending cuts elsewhere," he told

These and other issues will be dealt with each year in the annual appropriations process. "The real heavy lifting comes in appropriations," he said.

In most recent years, the Corps of Engineers budget authority has been between about $4 billion and $5 billion annually, about the same amount that USDA has spent on direct payments to farmers under the Farm Bill. And that amount for the Corps includes the fees collected from shippers for the two trust funds.

The amount of money spent only on locks and dams is a much smaller share of that $4 billion. About $100 million annually goes to construction while maintaining lock-and-dam costs between $330 million requested for the 2013 fiscal year and $481 million appropriated for 2011.

Steenhoek doubts that the new WRRDA bill will change this much.

"I see status quo funding, to be honest with you," he said.

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