By DOUG WILSON
Herald-Whig Senior Writer
A water resources law that would add $12 billion in new projects over a decade sailed through the U.S. Senate by an 83-14 margin Wednesday.
Ports, flood protection, levee projects and environmental restoration would be winners under the Water Resources Development Act of 2013. What it lacks is a commitment for lock and dam improvements in the Tri-State region and guidance on how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is going to complete $60 billion in projects that were promised six years ago but never funded.
The WRDA legislation passed in 2007 was vetoed by then-President George W. Bush. Democrats who held a majority in Congress at the time overrode the veto. However, Bush's proposed budgets failed to provide the funds needed to meet WRDA commitments, and members of Congress failed to boost budget appropriations for the projects they included in that law.
The current bill does not have earmarks, but it would boost funding for flood preparation, port development and other general categories. The $12 billion authorized for new projects would cover the cost of between 12 and 20 projects, none in the Tri-State region.
An amendment sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., would encourage public-private partnerships for river improvements. Kirk and Durbin hope public-private teamwork will speed the construction of 1,200-foot lock chambers at Quincy, and the Missouri communities of Canton, Saverton, Clarksville and Winfield on the Mississippi River, as well as the Illinois River communities of Peoria and LaGrange.
Locks and dams at those sites were built starting in the 1930s and have 600-foot chambers that force most barge tows to be decoupled and locked through in two procedures.
Durbin said the lock upgrades "aren't scheduled to be completed until 2090" unless companies that would benefit from a more-efficient barge traffic system are willing to help fund some of the work.
"Aging locks and dams contribute to delays along rivers like the Mississippi, holding back our potential for economic growth if left unattended," Kirk said.
Mike Klingner, a Quincy engineer who is president of the Upper Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri Rivers Association, said the organization is disappointed that the Senate bill does not even take care of the commitments made in WRDA 2007.
"We had barge operators who were willing to increase taxes on themselves for the Inland Waterway Trust Fund ... and we couldn't even get that in this legislation," Klingner said.
Klingner and river proponents also want to see funding commitments for the National Levee Safety Standards, which need a $1 billion grant program to help safeguard against flooding along the upper Mississippi River.
Economic considerations boosted WRDA's popularity in the Senate.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., worked with Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., on a plan they both say will create jobs.
"Ultimately that core, that theme, that common goal is what brought us effectively together," Vitter said.
The American Farm Bureau Federation reports that 95 percent of U.S. agriculture exports and imports move through U.S. harbors, supporting more than 400,000 jobs. The federation also warns that unless WRDA is approved, the inland waterway system "is at risk of becoming a potential detriment to the nation rather than a comparative strength."
Durbin also was the author of a part of the WRDA plan to help government and businesses prepare for the next flood or drought.
"After coming so close to economic catastrophe earlier this year, when we faced historic low water levels on the Mississippi River, and now facing severe flooding in parts of the state, it is clear that we need to be better prepared for extreme weather events that are becoming more frequent and more severe," Durbin said.
The bill also would ensure that more money in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, financed by user fees, actually goes to harbor improvements. It sets up a new program to promote levee safety and inland waterway projects, takes steps to expedite the environmental review process, and sets up a commission to make recommendations on defunding old, uncompleted projects.
The Obama administration expressed reservations about the law but stopped short of a veto threat. White House spokesmen faulted the measure for speeding up environmental reviews, increasing federal obligations for projects and doing little to address the Army Corps' construction backlog.
The Associated Press provided information for this story.