Shippers who transport bulk commodities such as grain, coal and petroleum products up and down the inland waterway system are breathing a sigh of relief this winter, thanks to the weather gods and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Enough rain and snow has fallen on the plains and in the upper Midwest to raise the low water levels on the Mississippi River that had curtailed barge traffic. In addition, the Army Corps expedited removal of the rock outcroppings in the river between Thebes and Grand Tower, Ill., that threatened to shut down the waterway that carries billions of dollars of U.S. grain to export terminals.
“It looks like we dodged the bullet,” said Ann McCullough, director of public affairs for the American Waterway Operators, an association representing tug and barge operators.
But some of the largest U.S. exporters can’t go on dodging the bullet unless Washington increases funding of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. The annual spending on locks and dams and river dredging amounts to $84 million, which with other federal funding brings the total spending on waterway maintenance to $175 million. But the Waterways Council estimates this is $205 million less than what’s needed to keep the vital system open.
Just look at what almost happened: The combination of last summer’s drought in the Midwest and the normal seasonal lessening of water releases from dams on the Missouri River by the Army Corps lowered water levels on the Mississippi so far that the Coast Guard reduced the maximum draft of barges on the Mississippi from 12 feet to 9 feet. Barge operators feared further draft restrictions to 7 or 8 feet would close the river to them — only a few have barges with drafts lower than 9 feet.
Because the rock outcroppings near Thebes threatened to close the river altogether, a coalition of shippers and operators of tugboats, towboats and barges that use the river system brought political pressure on Congress to direct the corps to expedite their removal. By the middle of January, the corps had blasted and removed enough rock to deepen the channel by 2 feet. In addition, the corps had released water from dams on other Mississippi tributaries that raised the water level.
“The success of the rock removal work, combined with recent and forecast rain, increases our confidence we will sustain an adequate channel through this spring, said Maj. Gen. John Peabody, the corps’ Mississippi Valley Division commander.
But with the acceleration of global warming, the U.S. no longer can depend on rain to pull the waterways out of the mud. The Senate is considering a new Water Resources Development Act that may raise the fuel tax of waterway vessels to bring in more funding. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., the new Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chair, said it’s a priority this year.
Let’s hope both chambers put their funding where the dredging needs to be.