A bipartisan piece of legislation now moving through Congress addresses the nation’s navigable waterways and could have a significant effect on Arkansas. Last week the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2013, a bill similar to one passed by the Senate in March.
The two bills reorganize funding to improve projects along rivers used for commercial transport, especially critical projects on the Army Corps of Engineers’ maintenance backlog. Gene Higginbotham, Director of the Arkansas Waterways Commission says the legislation contains more good than bad.
“The thing about the water bill is it streamlines a lot of processes. It's going to address some funding issues that might allow some money to come in and address the maintenance backlog that we we have on the locks and dams of the Arkansas River,” he says.
He points to many plans that would continue to improve Arkansas waterways, including one to expand the Arkansas River into a 12 foot channel, from the current depth of 9 feet. He says that would increase the shipping capacity of that route.
Though Higginbotham does worry that under the pending legislation, funding for the 12-foot channel may be de-authorized and redirected elsewhere. He says this is due to a provision which states that if projects haven't received funding 5 years after they are proposed, they can be put on a de-authorization list.
He hopes that members of Arkansas’s congressional delegation can participate in a House and Senate conference on the bills to keep funding for that project viable.
Federal money for projects is acquired through a fuel tax on cargo vessels and is paid into the Inland Waterway Trust Fund. Oftentimes, projects don't receive money all at once. Instead, funding trickles in over several years.
In the House version of the bill, local and regional sources of revenue would be allowed to combine with federal money on projects. Higginbotham says he is uncertain how that would work, since the inland waterway system is almost entirely owned and operated by the federal government through the Army Corps of Engineers. He says he wants to work with the Arkansas Legislature on finding ways to strengthen the system in upcoming sessions.
Higginbotham says many of the locks and dams in Arkansas are in a critical state.
“We have some definite issues that we have on the Arkansas River that we believe take a priority to the 12-foot channel because we want a reliable 9-foot channel first. So we have to address a study that we need done on the lower part of the river where the White River and the Arkansas River are having some issues. And then, we have [the] maintenance backlog on our locks. So we'd like to get those addressed first before we start talking about a 12-foot channel.”
The state ranks 3rd in the country in the amount of inland waterway mileage it has devoted to commercial shipping, says Higginbotham, behind Alaska and Louisiana. Despite that extensive network, the state still only ranks 32nd in the total amount of shipping on its waterways, consisting of the Arkansas, Ouachita, White and Mississippi rivers.
Higginbotham says 3.7 billion dollars worth of goods were shipped through Arkansas's waterways last year, a figure which has been trending upwards.