WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S. — The National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA) has joined 20 other national agricultural associations in urging that the U.S. Senate promptly approve legislation that would reauthorize the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).  

The Senate was scheduled to begin floor consideration on the legislation May 7, with a vote possible by later this week or early during the week of May 13.  

“America’s inland waterways and ports long have provided U.S. farmers, ranchers and agribusinesses with a strong comparative advantage, enhancing our ability to efficiently and competitively serve domestic and global markets, as well as to secure essential crop inputs for production of grains, oilseeds and other agricultural commodities,” the agricultural organizations wrote in a NGFA-generated letter distributed to all senators on May 6.  

“By far the lowest cost and most environmentally sustainable transportation mode, inland waterway transportation costs are two to three times less than other modes, translating into an annual savings of $7 billion,” the letter continued. “Further, the Upper Mississippi and Illinois River System typically accounts for 60% of the volume of U.S. grain and oilseed exports.  These exports and other navigation activity support more than 400,000 jobs. Meanwhile, more than 95 percent of U.S. agricultural exports and imports transit through U.S. harbors.”

But the organizations noted that the inland waterways system now risks becoming a “potential detriment” rather than a comparative strength for U.S. agriculture and other sectors of the American economy. The groups noted that a “staggering” 57% of the locks on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois River System were built in the 1930s with a projected 50-year lifespan. Of those, 26% are more than 70 years old. A 2013 infrastructure “report card” issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. inland waterways a D- grade.  

The WRDA bill approved unanimously by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on March 20 would authorize 18 waterway projects, including several on the inland waterways.  The bill also would mandate reforms to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ delivery of inland waterway projects, requiring the agency to improve inland waterways project delivery, complete new feasibility studies in less than three years, improve its environmental review process, and create two pilot projects to expand the local role in project implementation. The bill also would ensure all revenues deposited into the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund be spent on port maintenance. And it creates a process for “deauthorizing” projects that have not been completed.

But while terming the Senate committee’s approval of WRDA “an important step,” the NGFA and other agricultural organizations urged that the measure be amended on the Senate floor to:

• Increase the barge diesel fuel user fee to provide the funding required to initiate and complete desperately needed lock projects that would be authorized under WRDA.  Under existing law, barge fuel user fee revenues paid by the industry are deposited in an Inland Waterways User Fund and matched dollar-for-dollar by federal appropriations.
• Allocate the remaining costs for completing the Olmstead lock and dam on the Ohio River with federal funds.

Joining the NGFA in signing the letter to the Senate were:  the Agricultural Retailers Association; American Farm Bureau Federation; American Feed Industry Association; American Soybean Association; Corn Refiners Association; National Association of Wheat Growers; National Barley Growers Association; National Chicken Council; National Corn Growers Association; National Cotton Council; National Council of Farmer Cooperatives; National Farmers Union;  National Oilseed Processors Association; National Sunflower Association; National Turkey Federation; North American Export Grain Association; Pet Food Institute; The Fertilizer Institute; U.S. Canola Association; and U.S. Poultry & Egg Association.