Leaders of the Iowa Corn Growers Association and other farm groups were glad to see the long awaited passage of the Water Resources Reform Development Act or WRRDA in Congress last week. On May 20 the U.S. House of Representatives passed the conference report by an overwhelming 412 to 4 vote with all of Iowa's Congressional delegation in support. On Thursday, the U.S. Senate also approved the conference report with a vote of 91-7 with both of Iowa's U.S. Senators supporting the legislation. The bill now heads to President Obama's desk for signing.
"Our major river transportation system in the United States is vital to Iowa farming and this has been a priority for the Iowa Corn Growers Association for many, many years," says Roger Zylstra, a farmer from Jasper County and the current Iowa Corn Growers Association president. "We were proud to see our Iowa congressional delegation in support of WRRDA and we will seek their help as we work to secure funding for the Inland Waterways Trust Fund."
Highlights of the WRRDA bill include these key provisions
Olmsted Lock & Dam federalization: This provision provides permanent cost-sharing for the remaining cost of the Olmsted project on the Ohio River. It is located near the confluence of the Ohio River with the Mississippi River. The project will be 85% General Fund money and 15% from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, freeing up approximately $105 million per year for funding other Trust Fund priority projects with the Olmsted project funded at $150 million per year.
Increasing funding for inland waterways trust fund: The bill provides a definition of Major Rehabilitation Projects Eligible for Inland Waterways Trust Fund: This provision increases the funding from the current law level of $14 million, boosting it to $20 million and providing that it be adjusted annually for inflation.
Prioritization of projects: This provision is based upon risk of failure and economic benefit to the nation, as proposed by the Capital Development Plan.
Regulatory relief: The WRRDA bill also includes a provision that would relax the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Spill Prevention Controls & Countermeasures or SPCC rule. Language in the bill increases the exemption from 1,320 gallons to 6,000 gallons, pending a study by USDA and EPA. The provision also allows self-certification of spill plans for farms with less than 20,000 gallons of above ground aggregate storage and improves the definition of a reportable spill.
What doesn't this bill include that ICGA wanted? Unfortunately, WRRDA does not include Iowa Corn supported language to increase the diesel fuel user fee which would have provided additional revenue to the Inland Waterway Trust Fund which funds new construction projects on the inland waterways including the Mississippi River.
While farm groups are optimistic about getting President Obama to sign the bill into law, the bill still doesn't appropriate funding for the projects, notes Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Iowa-based Soy Transportation Commission. The funding step, he says, has historically been more contentious in Congress because it allocated actual dollars to the projects.
The WRRDA measure calls for an increase in harbor maintenance and channel projects, a priority for farm groups who have seen slowdowns at ports in recent years adversely affect exports of U.S. soybeans, corn and other crops.
Soybean growers also applaud passage of waterways bill
The Iowa Soybean Association and the American Soybean Association both welcomed passage of the WRRDA bill in Congress last week. The Iowa Farm Bureau and American Farm Bureau have also been strong supporters of this bill to improve the deteriorating inland transportation and harbor system in the United States.
"The Senate's passage of the WRRDA legislation represents another important step toward improving and creating a more workable framework for increased investment in our nation's waterways infrastructure—the upgrading of locks and dams for river shipping. Soybean growers need a reliable and efficient waterways system to get our product to market and meet a growing global demand," says ASA president and Iowa farmer Ray Gaesser. "Our waterway system helps take our soybeans from major growing regions to domestic processors and major exporting terminals, then on to valuable trading partners around the world, and is a big part of why soybeans lead the nation in agricultural exports. For too long we have ignored our infrastructure. This WRRDA bill is a strong step in the right direction."
Included in the bill are ASA-supported provisions that will free up significant funding within the Inland Waterways Trust Fund for additional waterways infrastructure projects; increase the level of Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund dollars that will be spent on port maintenance and dredging; streamline the Army Corps of Engineers' project review process; increase Corps flexibility to maintain navigation during low water events; and promote the use of alternative financing and public-private partnerships to fund waterways infrastructure.
Gaesser adds, "We will continue to work with Congress and the Obama Administration to implement the changes and improvements made in the WRRDA and to seek the additional funding that will be needed to upgrade our infrastructure."