Budget Decisions Churn Waters

Budget Decisions Churn Waters

The battle over the U.S. debt will affect Americans and government spending for a long time, and will mean major sacrifices in many programs. It is, however, imperative for Congress to proceed cautiously as it makes difficult cost-cutting choices and carefully consider their impact and consequences.

Water infrastructure is central to this nation’s future, both in terms of economic prosperity and safety. With the debt deal calling for more than $900 billion in cuts on spending over the next decade, it is unlikely even these critical programs will emerge unscathed. Nevertheless, as Congress makes its decisions, legislators must bear in mind the benefits these programs provide, such as life-saving flood control, abundant water supplies, shore protection, water-based recreation, environmental restoration and hydropower production.

Moreover, waterways transportation is the safest, most energy-efficient and environmentally sound mode of freight transportation. Although some cost-cutting may be necessary, Congress must make every effort to maintain a level of funding that will sustain these important programs where appropriate.

Notably, these programs are already heavily scrutinized. There is a common misconception that these are pork barrel programs, but the reality is quite the contrary.

Many projects must meet a very rigorous test requiring non-federal government entities to bear substantial shares of the project costs. And project authorizations often are based on extensive economic and environmental analysis and external peer review.

The bottom line is these programs are essential for the maintenance and growth of the U.S. economy.

More than 95 percent of U.S. imports and exports pass through our nation’s harbors. Failing to maintain and invest in our ports would lead to higher costs and would negatively impact employment. This would be detrimental to our country’s export competitiveness at a time when the president has made exports a prime focus of his administration, seeking to double them in the next five years.

Our inland waterways also play an important role in supporting our nation’s international trade by linking ports and other waterways. They provide an important alternative means of transportation to roads, helping reduce congestion on highways in a far more energy-efficient and safer way than highway trucking. Transportation costs using inland waterways are two to three times less than other modes of transportation, representing a savings of $7 billion a year for U.S. companies.

The economic impact of water infrastructure programs forms only part of the impact cutting these programs would have on U.S. transportation.

Cutting the management and resource funding would have serious safety implications. The impact of catastrophic events such as hurricanes Rita and Katrina, the Midwest floods of 2008, and the record-breaking flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers this spring can be minimized through federal water resource projects. The Army Corps of Engineers’ flood damage reduction program saves lives and has prevented more than $700 billion in river and coastal damages, saving almost $6 in damages for each dollar spent.

Terminating flood damage reduction projects in places such as Southeast Louisiana; Sacramento, Calif.; Fargo, N.D.; and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, would create a real risk for communities and the lives, homes and property of all families living in them. Moreover, managing water and water resources is a costly endeavor for local governments seeking to provide flood protection for their citizens while meeting water quality regulations, which, if not met, can lead to additional costs. Federal investment provides an incentive for local authorities to participate in programs such as flood damage reduction projects, improving public safety.

Without federal funding, projects such as the Mississippi Rivers and Tributaries Project may not be possible in the future. Authorized under the Flood Control Act of 1928, the Mississippi Rivers and Tributaries Project provides levees for containing flood flows, floodways for excess flows along the Mississippi River, channel improvement and stabilization, and tributary basin improvements. It is considered one of the most successful public works projects in U.S. history and is the backbone of the economies of numerous states and the way of life for millions of Americans. Indeed, it is estimated the MR&T improvements prevented more than $100 billion in damage, including protecting major industrial, commercial and retail facilities and millions of acres of cropland during this spring’s catastrophic flooding.

In implementing the debt deal spending cuts, Congress obviously has many difficult decisions ahead. In its deliberations, Congress must bear in mind the critical importance of water infrastructure funding from both an economic and safety perspective.

Neither the U.S. economy nor the American people can survive and prosper without these programs.

Evelyn M. Suarez is a shareholder with the Williams Mullen law firm and secretary to the National Waterways Conference. Contact her at esuarez@williamsmullen.com. J. Forbes Thompson is an associate with Williams Mullen. Contact her at fthompson@williamsmullen.com.