A Louisiana agriculture official urged Congress on Wednesday to direct the Army Corps of Engineers to fully tap the Harbor Maintenance Tax Fund, so the lower Mississippi River could be dredged to handle more agriculture exports.
Michael Strain, commissioner of agriculture and forestry, said farmers can’t fully load vessels on the river because of silting, costing exporters 10 cents a bushel on roughly 1.3 billion bushels of corn, wheat and beans. Strain was one of the several witnesses at a House Ways and Means subcommittee who testified in favor of the Realize America's Maritime Promise Act.
The bill has gathered widespread bipartisan support from members of the House who are outraged that the part of the harbor trust fund is used as a budget offset for unrelated programs. The trust fund now runs a surplus of more than $6 billion.
Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., the bill’s principal sponsor who chaired the hearing, said he had a letter from the Corps that the surplus is more than enough to maintain all waterways under its jurisdiction. The bill, introduced a year ago as stand-alone legislation, will likely be included in House Republican’s five-year, $260 billion surface transportation bill, Boustany said.
Silting in the Mississippi channel has been a particular concern after flooding in the Midwest last year dumped nearly 20 million square feet of topsoil in the passage between New Orleans and the Gulf. The channel’s authorized depth is 45 feet, but at times was as shallow as 42 feet, forcing officials to reduce vessel draft to prevent grounding.
Budget constraints forced the Corps to reduce its dredging budget for the Lower Miss from an average of $104 million per year to $72.6 million. Recently an emergency appropriations from Congress added an additional $55 million this year.