Champions of the Waterways
Dedicated to advocating for the modernization of lock and dam infrastructure on the nation’s inland waterways, Waterways Council, Inc. (WCI) tirelessly does what it can to shape policy and initiatives that benefit maritime commerce and the marine environment, simultaneously.
Apologies for the history lesson, but George Washington (yes, THAT George Washington) once waxed poetic about the importance of the inland waterways better than WCI President and CEO Mike Toohey ever could, which explains why he often leans on a 225-year-old quote when explaining the mission of Waterways Council, Inc.:
“I could not help taking a more contemplative and extensive view of the vast inland navigation of these United States, from maps and the information of others; and could not but be struck with the immense diffusion and importance of it, and with the goodness of that Providence, which has dealt her favors to us so profuse a hand,” Washington said. “Would to God we may have wisdom enough to improve them.”
Those words ring just as true today as they did way back then, which is why Waterways Council, Inc. – a Washington, D.C.-based national advocacy group waving the flag for the modernization and maintenance of the country’s vast system of navigable rivers, locks and dams, channels, and ports – echoes the importance of these economic arteries when communicating to both influencers and the general public.
For instance, more than 540,000 workers earn a living on our inland waterways, facilitating growth and sustainability for farmers, manufacturers and shippers both domestically and abroad. Beyond dollars and cents, the inland waterways provide hydropower, municipal water supply, flood control, recreation opportunities, and national defense.
Because of the bounty of industries and stakeholders of the inland waterways, membership within the WCI is wide-ranging – from Forbes 500 corporations to regional agriculture organizations to ports to labor and conservation groups.
“It’s a pretty unique enterprise,” says Toohey. “When you visit a member of Congress, and the Representative or Senator sees the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, The National Association of Manufacturers, shippers and carriers, and also labor organizations – carpenters and pipefitters -- all walking the halls together, giving one clear message that’s unified, it’s a coalition of voices in Washington focused on infrastructure, maintenance and dredging on the nation’s inland waterways.”
WCI’s efforts are particularly honed along the entire Mississippi River, which makes sense statistically. More than 60 percent of the country’s grain exports are shipped from the Upper Mississippi River System and exit south, often stationing at and eventually traversing through the Port of South Louisiana. Adds Toohey, “And we do it more safely, with less environmental impact than other transportation modes.” The Mississippi River – the northern portion officially designated as a “nationally significant ecosystem” by Congress – is also home base for 25 percent of North America’s fish species and a flyway for more than half of the continent’s bird species.
The issue remains that the majority of the Mississippi River’s navigation infrastructure requires attention and upgrades, some of which haven’t been addressed in nearly a century. More specifically, the Mississippi River lock system north of the Port of St. Louis (essentially America’s breadbasket states) dates back to the Work Project Administration under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. And while some improvements and modernizations have been made, much more work needs to happen considering some areas remain 600-foot, single-chamber locks that are too small and inefficient for today’s modern freight tows and are literally crumbling in some cases.
To address these dire needs, the WCI and 56 organizations -- from major companies like Cargill and John Deere to non-profits like Ducks Unlimited – successfully urged Congress to authorize the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program (NESP) a decade ago. On a grand scale, NESP features expanding seven locks, from 600-foot chambers to 1200-foot chambers, doubling their size, built in the 1930s, at the busiest sections of the river. Additionally, funds will be directed at smaller-scale maintenance and improvements to the existing river infrastructure, upgrades that benefit 13 states in all rather than just the Midwest region overall.
“That’s where the education process comes in,” Toohey says. “ Someone in Louisiana might not think matters in Illinois and Iowa are important to them. But it is critically important when you look at all the grain that comes down from the Ohio River, the Upper Mississippi River, and the Illinois River and then to Port of South Louisiana for export. And we win those export contracts not because of the production cost, but because of the transportation cost. The United States has the most efficient waterways and transportation system in the world.
“So the family farmer in Iowa is able to export grain to China because of the efficiency of the Port of South Louisiana. It’s all connected, and the future in grain is bright. We have access to reach new markets more efficiently than before, but it takes an investment at home to get those products to Port of South Louisiana and then onto foreign markets.”
Because the entire Mississippi River south of the Port of St. Louis is a free-flow waterway, the majority of WCI’s efforts down there have focused on dredging, maintaining amd improving critical port and navigation channels.
“Not only does the Corps address navigation, but they also address ecosystem restoration,” Toohey says. “Among the Corps’ mission areas, navigation is at the top of dollars spent, and and number two is ecosystem restoration. So what NESP does is to combine both of those missions into one program. Our view is, NESP should be the posterchild on how the Corps should do things more efficiently to combine infrastructure restoration with environmental restoration.”
Most recently, WCI applauded the passage of the FY 2017 Omnibus Appropriations bill that provides funding for the Army Corps of Engineers through the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2017. FY ’17 funding for the Corps’ Civil Works mission totals $6.038 billion, a slight (0.8%) increase above the FY 16 funding level, but almost a 31% increase above the Obama Administration requested level. Absent in the bill was directive language to require the Corps to resume Pre-construction Engineering Design (PED) for the NESP program, but that was tempered by an explanatory statement directing the Corps to take steps necessary to ensure that new construction projects can be initiated as soon as they can be supported under the capital program. Together with the $5 million in additional appropriation for inland navigation included in the Corps’ Investigation Account, the statement could be used to expedite the resumption of NESP PED if the Trump Administration is inclined to support it.
With NESP such a natural and efficient way to modernize infrastructure and restore the marine ecosystem, let’s hope they do!
- William Kalec