The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Thursday unanimously approved the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2013, authorizing waterways infrastructure changes that could provide benefits to U.S. farmers and grain shippers.
Under the bill, Congress authorizes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to maintain waterways infrastructure, ensure proper navigation and commerce, address flood risk management, and carry out environmental restoration efforts.
Historically, Congress has passed waterways legislation every two years, but no bill has been signed into law since 2007. While the bill now moves to the full House of Representatives for approval, the Senate in May passed its own version with a vote of 83-14.
Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said in a statement following the passage that the bill is the most policy- and reform-focused legislation of its kind in the last two decades.
"WRRDA is about jobs and improving America's competitiveness," he said. "A strong water transportation network is critical to keeping pace with other nations that are improving their own infrastructure networks and gaining ground in an increasingly competitive global marketplace."
In addition to its most basic function of authorizing Corps projects, the bill also sets deadlines on the time and cost of studies to consider waterways projects and allows public-private partnerships to ensure waterways infrastructure.
Danny Murphy, President of the American Soybean Association, said his organization supports the bill.
"Soybean farmers rely on a reliable network of waterways, locks, dams and ports to move our products from farm to market," Murphy said. "This bill and its companion in the Senate would begin to the process of ... improving our vital waterways infrastructure."
The National Corn Growers Association, supporters of the legislation, said the changes in the bill were critical to American agriculture and the U.S. economy.
"Every year more than a billion tons of domestic commerce, valued at more than $300 billion, travels through our lock and dam system," NCGA President Pam Johnson explained in a statement. She estimated that one billion bushels of grain, or roughly 60% of all grain exports, move to markets via the inland waterways each year.
"We can't afford to allow such an integral part of our value chain continue to deteriorate," she noted.
While the groups generally expressed support, the Corn Growers also suggested one addition – a barge fuel tax, which would improve the revenue stream for the Inland Waterway Trust Fund. The IWTF provides support for lock and dam updates and other upgrades.
According to the Illinois Corn Growers Association, without the industry-approved user fee, it will be 2070 before many repairs and upgrades could be complete at the LaGrange, Ill., lock and dam, for example.
"From a procedure standpoint, the additional increase of the user fee should originate in the House Ways and Means Committee. Without increased funding, we're looking at two more generations of waterways users dealing with this crumbling infrastructure," ICGA President Paul Taylor noted in a statement.
Illinois is home to eight lock and dam systems on the Mississippi River.