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Economy & Business

Waterways Council: President's budget request 'disappointing'

barge shipping, Mississippi River
Maria Altman | St. Louis Public Radio
A tugboat moves up the Mississippi River just south of Alton.

A barge and transportation industry group is sharply criticizing the president’s budget request for river infrastructure and upkeep.

Waterways Council Inc. called President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2017 budget request for the U.S. Army Corps the "most disappointing to date." The budget proposes $4.6 billion for the Corps’ civil works program, nearly 30 percent less than the current appropriation by Congress.

Waterways president and CEO Mike Toohey said the Corps is already struggling to keep up with maintenance on aging lock and dam systems on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.

"The Corps has gone to a strategy of not doing preventative maintenance on these 1930s and '40s locks," Toohey said. "They’ve gone to a strategy of fixing them when they break. They call it their fix as fails strategy."

Toohey pointed to the shutdown of the Melvin Price Lock and Dam just south of Alton to replace cables in 2014. He said the repair finished just before the harvest when farmers send millions of tons of grain down the river. If an outage occurred during harvest, Toohey said it could wreak havoc for farmers.

"If we ever have a catastrophic failure during grain season, the U.S. market will be seen as unreliable, and then the international market will be going to Brazil for their corn, soybeans and wheat rather than coming to the Midwest," he said.

Congress is expected to appropriate much more money for the Corps’ civil works program than the president requested. Toohey said Congress increased funding for the Corps’ operations and maintenance account, as well as construction in each of the last three years.

Still, there has been no money for the navigation ecosystem sustainability program, which includes construction projects for the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. It was passed as part of Water Resources Development Act in 2007.

In a report card released last October by the America’s Watershed Initiative, the Mississippi River Basin received a D+. The report found navigation was an especially big concern. At the time Heath Kelsey, a project lead on the report and a program director at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, said a small portion of the basin’s infrastructure is in failing or nearly failing condition.

"That 2 or 3 percent is a really big deal," he said. "We need to be concerned because that system is very interdependent and one failed lock can have cascading effects throughout the rest of the system."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not respond immediately to a request for comment. In a press release, Jo-Ellen Darcy, the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, said the budget supports the core mission areas of "coastal and inland navigation, reducing flood and storm risks and restoring aquatic ecosystems."

"The budget continues to reflect the tough choices necessary to put the country on a fiscally sustainable path," Darcy said.

Follow Maria on Twitter: @radioaltman

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