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USDA won't stop river lock-&-dam upgrade
Illinois Correspondent

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Recent remarks from USDA Secretary Mike Johanns concerning the state of locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers have been met with disfavor by the Illinois Corn Growers Assoc. (ICGA) and MARC-2000, a St. Louis-based river advocacy group.

That Johanns eventually backed off of his earlier statement that locks are “working well” under existing maintenance efforts has not done much to appease either group, whose leaders were left scratching their heads in wonder at the Secretary’s remarks during the Commodity Classic last week in Anaheim, Calif.

During the Classic’s March 3 session, Johanns attempted to assure agricultural leaders on three occasions that the USDA and Bush administration knows the importance of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) and would not stand in the way of the measure.

“The administration will work with Congress and not oppose their efforts” in approving the WRDA bill, Johanns said, adding the Bush administration “has always understood the importance of the lock and dam system and the transportation infrastructure.”

John Kuhfuss, president of the ICGA, said that even though officials with the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) and American Soybean Association expressed confidence that the administration would not oppose the bill after hearing Johanns’ retractions, the Ill. organization will go ahead with a radio and media campaign urging farmers to contact the USDA Secretary and ask for his clear, “no-nonsense” endorsement for the bill.

Last week, members of the ICGA, NCGA, MARC-2000 and the Mid-Central Ill. Regional Council of Carpenters stormed Capitol Hill en masse in an effort to demand Senate floor time for the bill, which has languished in the Senate since being overwhelmingly approved by the House in July 2005.

The group visited with numerous Senate offices including the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and discussed arranging floor time for the bill in a timely fashion. The group also visited the offices of Senators Bill Frist (R- Tenn.), Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), among others.

Paul Rohde, president of the Midwest Area River Coalition (MARC-2000), said that though Johanns’ remarks were confusing, the group takes the Secretary’s clarification at the Commodity Classic as a “great sign.” However, Rohde is still puzzled by Johanns’ claim that the locks in question, if invested in prudently, could last another 50 years.

“This, of course, speaks nothing of the issue of (lock) capacity which the agricultural community is concerned with,” Rohde said of Johanns’ remarks, which were published by several news sources. “Not to mention the factual claim about the locks lasting another 50 years, which is at best suspect.”

In the current MARC 2000 newsletter, The River Alert, the organization claimed supporters of the bill are “scratching their heads over the Administration’s disconnect concerning water infrastructure improvements.” The newsletter claims that in Nov. 2005 President Bush called for a $10 billion modernization and expansion of locks at the Panama Canal. Ports at both ends of the canal are operated by a Chinese company. The newsletter claims Bush is more interested in foreign trade than getting U.S. products from the heartland to the world market.

“Recognition that waterborne transportation is in our national interest is welcome news,” remarked Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.). “Now we just need to get Administration officials to apply that same common sense to the Mississippi River. It’s a great idea in Panama; it’s an even better idea here at home.”

The ICGA is calling out to members, past participants of educational barge tours, the public and members of MARC-2000 to call the USDA and express their desire to bring WRDA to the Senate floor.

A toll-free phone number (1-888-WHYCORN) has been established which rings directly into the USDA office. Respondents can also go to the ICGA website to send a letter to Johanns through the Legislative Action Center.

WRDA authorizes the construction of seven new 1,200-foot locks on the upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers and an expansive ecosystem restoration program. Midwestern producers and barge companies contend the antiquated locks slow barge traffic and impair U.S. producers’ ability to compete in the world trade market.

This farm news was published in the March 15, 2006 issue of Farm World.