|By TIM ALEXANDER
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Reaction from the agriculture community was swift and supportive following the U.S. Senate’s approval of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA, SB 728) by a voice vote on July 19.
The bill, which was approved by the House of Representatives in 2005, will provide for much-needed overhauls to antiquated locks and dams on the Illinois and upper Mississippi rivers as well as a major waterways ecosystem restoration program. Agricultural commodities producers, distributors and transporters have kept a keen eye on the bill’s progress, believing the construction of seven new, 1,200-foot locks on the waterways will increase the speed and efficiency of transporting goods to the Gulf of Mexico and world markets.
“Today we have moved closer to an efficient and modern navigation system on the rivers,” announced Gerald Tumbleson, president of the National Corn Growers Assoc. (NCGA), following the Senate’s action. “Corn growers have worked many, many years to ensure the transportation infrastructure is modernized and we appreciate the tireless efforts of our members and their legislators who helped get the bill to the Senate floor.”
The bill was threatened by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reform amendments focusing on how water resource projects are prioritized and reviewed. One such amendment, McCain-Feingold, was passed despite the objections of the NCGA and other supporters. Tumbleson said the NCGA would seek changes to the amendment in the conference committee process, according to a news release.
“We look forward to working with the House and Senate conferees as they work to finalize the two versions of this necessary infrastructure legislation,” said Tumbleson. “We are optimistic we will see the final passage of the bill before year’s end.”
American Soybean Assoc. president Rick Ostlie was enthusiastic over the Senate’s approval for WRDA, as well.
“Over 75 percent of U.S. soybean exports move to world ports via the upper Mississippi and Illinois River systems,” said Ostlie, a soybean producer from North Dakota. “Our lock and dam system was constructed during the New Deal to handle 600 foot-long barges. Nearly 60 years later, barge tows have doubled in length to 1,200 feet, requiring the tow to be split and sent through in two separate sections. These delays result in higher transportation costs, resulting in lower commodity prices and fewer international sales for U.S. farmers.”
Philip Nelson, president of the Illinois Farm Bureau and a Seneca grain and livestock producer, said WRDA’s Senate passage represents a “major legislative victory” for the state’s agriculture system.
“New locks will finally bring our outdated river transportation system into the twenty-first century and allow corn and soybean producers to compete for international markets,” Nelson said, calling the project “desperately needed and long overdue.”
John Kuhfuss, president of the Illinois Corn Growers Assoc. (ICGA) and a farmer from Mackinaw, said the impact of lock modernization will be felt in many sectors of the economy and overseas.
“Our entire society will benefit from this progressive legislation because it will lead to more cost-competitive transportation and it improves our access to customers worldwide,” said Kuhfuss. “This action will send a message to the world that the U.S. is serious about trade.”
The bill now goes to the House-Senate Conference Committee for action, before returning to Congress for the funding appropriations process. The final step would be the signature of the president.
Two of the seven locks to be overhauled or reconstructed are located on the Illinois River at Peoria and LaGrange; five locks on the upper Mississippi from south of Keokuk, Iowa to Calhoun County, Ill. are affected. Once begun, the project is expected to take several years to complete and will generate around 48 million man-hours of work time, according to proponents of the bill.
Barge tours scheduled for early August on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers designed to call attention to the need for better locks will take place as scheduled, according to a spokesman for the ICGA.